Monday, 16 May 2016

Interview with James Else

James is a York-based lecturer, composer and filmaker. He currently works as head of creative and contextual studies at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, as well as being a freelance TV producer creating programmes for the BBC. Prior to this he completed a PhD in composition at the University of York with Nicola LeFanu. James Else’s new work, falling, unseen, will be premiered by Cuatro Puntos at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 4th June at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
James Else: I almost perfectly fit the stereotype of western classical composer – male, white, middle class, practically middle-aged J. This left a difficult question of how to relate to the Rosegarden of Light project, which focuses on composers from the Middle East. I’ve never seen my music as means of making a political statement, yet against this backdrop and the current state of world politics it seemed impossible to avoid looking at these issues. Yet trying to impose my ideological beliefs through my music seemed naïve. The piece that emerged comes from these ideas churning through my mind, and is hopefully a reflection, rather than an imposition, of my ideals.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JE: I’m increasingly finding no single method of composing completely satisfactory. In this piece I changed between piano, violin (variously detuned to try and imitate the other strings) and a piano roll editor. Putting notes on a score increasingly seems to happen last.
I normally start by trying to create a fragment of music that excites or entices me, and then think about how that can work structurally. Quite often large sections (or even the whole piece) get deleted and I start again from the point I’m still happy with. The best of my pieces are probably the ones where the rules are intuitive rather than prescriptive by the end of the process.

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
JE: I feel that it can work equally well both ways. In either case, how the performers manipulate, interpret or develop the work is one of the most exciting parts of being a composer.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JE: Possibly the best way to describe it is that with each piece I’m trying to find a harmonic and structural language that responds to, and works with, the history and hierarchies of western music, whilst avoiding pastiche or blandness.

SC: What motivates you to compose?
JE: Art is important (and what Art can encompass is practically limitless). Being a very small part of that … is something that feels good.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
JE: A cliché I’m afraid, but I do greatly admire Arvo Pärt, and in particular the relationship he creates between the mathematical and the spiritual. He was also the first composer I heard that made me feel that it’s OK to write contemporary classical music that sounds ‘nice’.

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

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JE: JS Bach – The Art of Fugue
JS Bach – The Well Tempered Klavier (book 1)
JS Bach – Goldberg Variations
Arvo Pärt – Fur Alina
Corelli – Christmas Concerto
Josquin des Pres – Missa L’Homme arme super voces musicales
Smetana – Ma vlast
Telemann – Suite for Recorder in A minor

For sentimental reasons I’ll choose Ma vlast

SC: …and a book?:
JE: The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb

SC: …a film?
JE: I just don’t find films have the same power as music to grab me again and again.

SC: … and a luxury item?
JE: Could I have my family come and visit me?

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Composer of the month: Kareem Roustom

Kareem Roustom is a Syrian-American composer, born and raised in Damascus, whose work has been described as ‘bi-lingual.’ Active in a number of genres Roustom’s concert music seeks to create a voice that reflects his heritage by combining a fluency in both traditional/classical Arabic music and Western concert music. His commissioned works include Daniel Barenboim, the Kronos Quartet, the Landmarks Orchestra (Boston), the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Educational Department, the Michigan Philharmonic, the Crossing Choir, Coro Allegro (Boston), the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Gammage Center at Arizona State University, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, the Aplle Hill String Quartet, and others. His music has been performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, under Daniel Barenboim at the Lucerne Festival, the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms. Other performances include the Malmo Opera Orchestra (Sweden), the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra Chamber Music Series, Choir of the 21st Century (London), The Peninsula Women’s Chours, the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, the Verbier Festival, the Braunschweig Music Festival, the Rheingau Musik Festival, and the forthcoming American premiere of Roustom’s Ramal for orchestra at the Grand Teton Music Festival under Donald Runnicles (August 19th & 20th 2016). James R. Oestreich in the New York Times described Roustom’s Ramal as “propulsive, colorful
 and [an] immediately appealing creation.” Stephen Pritchard in The Guardian described Ramal as “arrestingly quirky and postmodern…music with lots of personality.” Of his triple string quartet A 
Voice Exclaiming, commissioned 
for the Kronos Quartet and
 Rhode Island-
based Community MusicWorks,
 David Harrington wrote: “I think that with A Voice Exclaiming, Kareem Roustom has made a vivid, thought-provoking new piece that reflects hope in the time we live in, and the immense possibility for positive change as well as its awesome uncertainties and dangers.” 
Kareem Roustom’s new work, Letters Home for violin and cello, will be performed by Cuatro Puntos at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 4th June at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
Kareem Roustom: Words are probably not the best way to describe music but I suppose my work is a reflection of my upbringing in Syria and my life in the USA. How this manifests itself depends on the musical situation at hand but I think it is not quite accurate to say that there is any one definition of my ‘work’ since some of it is professional work (i.e. jobs) and some of it arises out of a deep interest in life and a profound need to express something about it. The latter is the kind of spirit that I try to bring to my concert music.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
KR: I don’t play the piano, my main instrument is the oud. However, I do have a piano at home that I play excellent ‘composer piano’ on (imagine two index fingers fumbling on the keys). My favorite place to compose is at my desk, away from the computer, with pencil and paper. Although I use computer based notation a great deal I try to keep things on paper for as long as possible as I truly believe technology gets in the way of creativity and certainly dulls the inner ear.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
KR: I think it is. At the very least, I try to imagine the performer, practicing the piece and asking “is this really worth my time to practice?” Then I avoid answering that question and continue writing. 
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
KR: I hope to some day have an individual sound world but as I look back on what I've done so far I find that my musical language can vary widely. However, I am trying to find a voice in my concert works and, I suppose, one might say that I try to combine elements Arab art and folk music with contemporary western concert musical languages. But this isn’t always obvious to the listener, which is not something I try to be blunt about. I am fascinated by instrumental colour and I try to be expressive with my orchestration.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
KR: A deep interest in life and the need to say something about it. A need to connect, to somehow console, even if it is only my own consolation that I seek, and a need to try and reach for something better than the last work that I composed.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
KR: I cannot think of any that I identify with but I am very taken with the music of Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adés. However, any piece of music, whatever the style, can also be something that I’m drawn to if it has the right combination of elements.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
KR: This is always dangerous because I worry that I might really dislike the person whose music I love. I recently read a biography about Sibelius, whose symphonies I am absolutely moved by, but I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to spend much time with him had I lived in during his lifetime. His poor wife, how she suffered for his genius. Great artists don’t always make for the most pleasant personalities. That said, I’d very much like to meet with Ravel to discuss orchestration, his life, and anything else. However, I’d assume he’d prefer a nice glass of merlot rather than a beer.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
KR: The great Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum’s Al-Atlaal (The ruins), composed by Riyad Al-Sunbati, Sibelius Symphonies no 3 & 7 (can those count as one), Huwa Sahih (Is it true that love conquers all?) by Zakaria Ahmad, Britten’s War Requiem (it is a shame to choose just one of his), Mozart Clarinet Quintet, Penderecki’s Passion, Knussen’s Horn Concerto, Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe. If I had to choose one, I guess it would be Al-Atlaal. Nostalgia would be a very powerful factor on a desert island and the sung poetry deals with facing the ruins of one’s life/civilisation but are also defiant and inspiring.
SC: …and a book?:
KR: If I were stuck on a desert island, I would want a book on navigating by the stars.
SC: …a film?
KR: The Double Life of Veronique by Kryzstof Keislowski
SC: …and a luxury item?

KR: Here, my luxury item is quiet time, on the island it would probably be something very basic, like a blanket.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies by composer Peter Reynolds

There had been so many reports of Peter Maxwell Davies’s illnesses in recent years that the news of his death yesterday should not have come as a surprise. Yet somehow he always seemed immutable; a figure one thought would always be there.

Photograph: Ros Drinkwater 

From the age of fifteen or so his music provided many landmarks in my life. Hearing a broadcast of St Thomas Wake in 1973 was my first real experience (that I could relate to) of contemporary music. Eight Songs for a Mad King from the 1975 Proms provided a frisson of teenage rebellion against more established musical norms and the first broadcast of his opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus from the 1977 St Magnus Festival was a revelation. The money I received for my twenty-first birthday was spent on the newly published score of his First Symphony, which then felt at the very cutting edge of contemporary music. Early performances of The Lighthouse and the Second and Third Symphonies were red letter days and I devoted a large part of my MA studies to the music of his early years. I travelled to the National Sound Archive to hear a tape of the notorious 1969 premiere of Worldes Blis at a time when it was the only way to hear it and was thrilled when the Royal Opera revived Taverner in 1983.

Broadcasts and recordings were important ways of keeping up with Max's work, but some of the deepest musical experiences came with hearing his own performing group, The Fires of London, live. Concerts they gave at Cardiff University in March 1978 and at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival later that year were opportunities to experience the almost physical impact of new pieces inspired by the land and seascapes of the Orkneys where he set up home in the mid-1970s, The Hymn to St Magnus and Ave Maris Stella made a particular impression as did the presence of Max's conducting. Orkney became a place of pilgrimage resulting in a visit in 1981.


Photograph: Murdo Macleod

In 1983 and '84 I sat in on his classes at Dartington and encountered an analytical and compositional rigour that was revelatory. Students turned up at 9am for four hours of analysis and were then sent away for the afternoon to write a small piece based on structural ideas that emerged during the morning classes – score and parts to be ready for performance by 4pm! A lot of the music I wrote at that time was based on the techniques I picked up by studying his music and the structural principles he taught in his own classes. The floor of my work room was covered in magic squares and many of my scores tried hard to imitate the atmosphere of Worldes Blis, the Second Taverner Fantasia or great slow third movement of the First Symphony.

There were later performances that recaptured something of that early excitement: WNO’s premiere of the Doctor of Mydfai in 1996 was one such occasion, especially when Simon Rees asked me to interview Max for the programme book at Judy Arnold’s home in London. Inevitably, I suffered a reaction against the music and still feel that there was a dropping off in intensity and quality of the later music after the Violin Concerto of 1986. But it is also possible, once that initial love affair was broken, that I was incapable of finding my way into that world again. I hope I might change my mind in the future. But there is much to be grateful for: the music certainly, but also the man himself who was endlessly fascinating and a real beacon to young composers in terms of support, applying rigour to one’s craft and celebrating the sheer adventure of composing. Many thanks Max.

Peter Reynolds, 15th March 2016

Friday, 11 September 2015

Composer of the Month: David Power


Composer of the Month: David Power
David Power was born in London in 1962. His initial interest was experimental rock music but, in due course he discovered the music of Boulez and Stockhausen and converted to contemporary classical music. In the late 1990’s he simplified his style and also re-integrated his rock music influences into his work. His music has been widely performed throughout the UK and, more recently in Europe and the USA. Recently he has become interested in collaborative work and this has seen his music played as soundtracks for short films, in art galleries, at literary events and even at new age festival as well as in the concert hall. His Eight Evening Songs appeared on the acclaimed Songs Now CD on the Meridian label in 2012 and his Eight Miniatures will shortly appear on a CD of British piano miniatures from the last hundred years. David Power’s new work will be performed by the Ebor Singers, conductor Paul Gameson, at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 3rd October at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
David Power: It is a choir piece in two movements and lasts about eight minutes. It sets extracts of two poems by Harriet Tarlo. I have written quite a lot of vocal music in recent years – mainly songs for voice and piano – and have found ever more ways of close reading the texts and then using this close reading as a starting point for music that can have a variety of different types of connections and relationships with the words. I have even experimented with making videos for a couple of my songs as a way of adding a third layer of meaning to the song as a whole. You will shortly be able to see this on my website – www.davidpowercomposer.co.uk
The first of the Tarlo settings is short and quite quick. It keeps repeating the line ‘white went round you’ and sets the other lines against it. The second poem I set is called Graphite and Harriet has written it in such a way that there are evocative three word phrases such as ‘sea layer sky’ on the page with plenty of space before the next phrase comes. I have responded to this simply by setting the words slowly and allowing them to speak for themselves. As I say, the two movements last a total of about eight minutes
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
DP: Until recently I always wrote at the piano except when writing guitar music. Nowadays, as I am using electronics more, a lot of the work is done with a synthesizer and on computer. I do a certain amount of pre-planning for larger pieces but mostly prefer just to jump in and get on with it. My preferred way of writing is to write a short piece in a single day. Knowing I am going to try and do that really concentrates my mind and is very rewarding when it goes well. I once tried to equal Schoenberg’s achievement of writing three songs in a day but only managed two – and one of them was no good!

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
DP: It is useful rather than important. More often than not, I have written without knowing who the performers will be and, in a few cases, the pieces remain unperformed. But they were pieces I wanted to write
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
DP: Well that is hard for composers to say about their own work. Tom Armstrong says my music is accessible but doesn’t take easy or obvious routes to its accessibility. I think that is perceptive. I suppose I would say my vocabulary is largely – though not entirely – traditional but the sensibility of my music is an early 21st century one.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
DP: It is very hard to untangle all of this but one big factor is simply how rewarding I find it when I write something I believe has merit.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
DP: Well I admire any composer who has written first rate music that I like and, in my case, this ranges from composers such as John White to James Dillon. I identify with a much smaller range of composers. At the moment, I feel a strong affinity with what Michel van der Aa tried to do with his A Book of Sand which is, according to the publicity blurb, the world’s first interactive song cycle. There are aspects of this work that I dearly wish I had thought of. 
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
DP: Probably Erik Satie. I love a few of his pieces and like quite a lot more but never feel I really get where he is coming from. What is behind the irony and the eccentricity? I feel you would have to actually spend time with him to start to answer that and I would like to know the answer. However, I would have to make it clear it would be one beer, and not a session as, even in my youth, I doubt I could have kept up with Satie!
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
DP:
Ravel - Le Tombeau de Couperin
Sibelius – Luonnotar
David Bowie – Outside – including the Leon outtakes
Boulez – Repons
Massive Attack – 100th Window
Roger Marsh – Pierrot Lunaire
Michel van der Aa – The book of Sand
David Power and David Lancaster – Double Vestiges.
Narrowing this down to just one is hard. If I really did have to go to a desert island, I would probably take Double Vestiges, not because it is the best but because of its links to what I had done with my life to date.
SC: …and a book?:
DP: if I had to leave for my desert island now, I would take IQ84 by Murakami as it’s amazing but I am only half way through and want to find out how it ends.
SC: …a film?
DP: Wings of Desire
SC: … and a luxury item?
DP: Plenty of good real ale and good red wine.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Composer of the month: Colin Riley


Colin Riley’s work draws on a range of elements including new technologies, improvisation, song-writing and large-scale classical form. His work is difficult to categorize, embodying a genuine integration of stylistic approaches. His new work, As the Tender Twilight Covers, will be performed by pianist Matthew Schellhorn at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 7th September at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
Colin Riley:
The piece takes two stanzas of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore as its inspiration.
Matthew had originally asked that the piece be a memorial piece to his parents and when I came across the poem it provided me with some poetic nuances which could help to shape the piece dramatically and place this in a context for me. The music unravels gradually transforming as it proceeds from a dark, dusk-like atmosphere towards jagged fractures and distortions. It subsides from this into a serene stillness distilling the harmonies from the whole piece into a chorale-like coda. 
“As the tender twilight covers in its fold of dust-veil marks of hurt and wastage from the dusty day’s prostrations, even so let my great sorrow for thy loss, Beloved, spread one perfect golden-tinted silence of its sadness o’er my life.
Let all its jagged fractures and distortions, all unmeaning scattered scraps and wrecks and random ruins, merge in vastness of some evening stilled with thy remembrance, filled with endless harmony of pain and peace united.”
I describe the process of composing ‘As the Tender Twilight Covers’ more fully in a recent blog: 
http://colin-riley.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/visualising-and-physicalising.html
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
CR:
Most pieces begin with general concepts germinating in my head for several months. The ideas bob around and start to take a more focused form over time. I write lots of ideas down in word-form in notebooks and on pieces of paper, and sometimes sing or talk through ideas into my iphone. I like to fill manuscript with lots of penciled sketches once I’m working at the piano. Composing at many different pianos often helps the process. I improvise with these sketches, and I like to physicalize the music. If things get stuck I find that walking always helps to unlock them. From the sketches I move into transferring the notes into Sibelius. If I can, I try never to press the play function as this usually results in me loosing faith with my material. I sometimes realise sections of the music, especially if it is groove-based, on Logic software.   

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
CR:
Knowing your performer does make a difference, but its not essential. Its wonderful if the performers you are writing for are available to consult with. This always provides some added inspiration as well as solid advice on technical and notational aspects.
I’ve created quite a body of work in the last ten years for my own ensembles (MooV and the Homemade Orchestra) and had the luxury of working with some really sensitive musicians. It never ceases to amaze me how magical it is when the dots and lines you make on a page come to life in the hands of such players.
  
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
CR:
Distilled.  

SC: What motivates you to compose?
CR:
I can’t remember ‘not’ composing.
I think I began from just altering the piano pieces I was learning when I was young. I would make a mistake, stumbling into something new and just follow my nose into another world. I’ve always done it. I’ve always thought of myself as a composer. Manuscript paper has been a big part of my life.  There are so many areas to keep you motivated and curious. Applying technology in my work for example has always pushed me into new approaches. The same is true of improvisation, and collaboration. 

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

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
CR:
Schoenberg.
He lived in an interesting period of history, and I think he’s open up after a few beers.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
CR:
Schoenberg – Five Pieces for Orchestra
Elgar – Cello Concerto
Ligeti – Piano Etudes
Messaien – Quartet for the End of Time
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
David Sylvian -  Blemish
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto   - Insen
Britten –  Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto is something I can keep coming back to. I am a ‘cellist by trade and this piece oozes ‘cello-ness. The melancholy and the restrained emotions also express something very English. It’s such a complete piece in so many ways.

SC: …and a book?:
CR:
Ordnance Survey OL6 Map: The English Lakes, South Western Area

SC: …a film?
CR:
Synecdoche, New York

SC: … and a luxury item?
CR:
A piano