Tag Archives: British composer

‘Madame X’ – the Opera

Masetto and Zerlina – a young immigrant couple – are impoverished, cold, and starving. Masetto, a brilliant portrait artist, is being ripped off by his unscrupulous agent, and circling art collectors will not take “no” for an answer.

Shivering in a shabby loft, struggling to make ends meet, and exploited by the wealthy and powerful collectors Lady Brannoch and Mr Wilmore, Masetto lives for his art, protected only by his muse and love, Zerlina. Their plight becomes increasingly perilous, desperate, and deadly, until at last: revenge.

‘Madame X’ is a new opera by Tim Benjamin, inspired by the Italian operas of Handel and by Jacobean revenge drama. This dark, passionate and obsessive tale is peppered with black humour and explores the potent combination of money and power in the world of art.

I asked composer Tim Benjamin to tell us more about the genesis of his new opera:

What is the inspiration behind Madame X?

Madame X is a tale of skulduggery in the world of art, specifically portrait-painting. It is created in the style of the Jacobean (and Elizabethan) “revenge” dramas, of which the necessary ingredients included a dastardly plot, a murder, a ghostly visitation, and a gory revenge preferably taking in the entire cast. My opera (I also wrote the libretto) makes the most of these ingredients, finding a lot of fun in them too: it’s not “tragedy” in a particularly sad or weepy sense – though it has its moments! –  indeed there’s a fair bit of comedy in the plot.

‘Madame X’ is the name of a painting by John Singer Sargent. Has this painting had any direct or indirect influence on your work?

The Portrait of Madame X by Sargent has an interesting background: Sargent and a notorious young socialite, Virginie Gautreau, collaborated to produce something of a publicity stunt for both of them. In the event it back-fired, the painting (today considered a masterful study) shocked and scandalised, and had a poor public and critical reception; Gautreau was humiliated and Sargent permanently left Paris to move to London.

Now, while interesting, that isn’t the story of my opera Madame X, but it is one of the many fascinating stories behind now-famous artists and their works that form the essence of the plot of the opera.

Madame X (the opera, not the painting) features a brilliant but impoverished artist, Masetto, and his lover and muse, Zerlina, who are exploited by characters that represent various forces that have shaped the history of art: Mr Wilmore is an American capitalist (“new money” and art-as-investment), Lady Brannoch is an aristocrat of Old Europe (“old money” and patronage), Botney is a double-dealing agent, and The Public who are … the public, featured at play, often drunkenly, and at church; alcohol and religion are, of course, both major influences in the world of art.

The character Masetto only ever speaks (well, sings) the titles of famous paintings. We, the listener, and the other characters on stage must interpret his meaning from these titles. One of these utterances is, naturally, “Madame X…” – but this happens at a key moment in the plot, which I won’t spoil here, so you’ll have to come and see it to find out why!

What are your key musical inspirations in creating this opera?

The sharp-eyed reader will have spotted that Masetto and Zerlina are characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and that opera is an influence or inspiration for this. The plot is (very) loosely similar; one could say that the equivalent of the Don in Mozart is “Money”and the women that he pursues are “Art” in Madame X. The primary musical influence is however Handel, specifically his Italian operas (Giulio Cesare, Cerce, Rinaldo, Rodelinda…).

Just as there are numerous references to famous paintings in the libretto, there are references to famous movements in classical (and not so classical) music in the score. Not quotations as such, and not pastiche, but what I might call adaptations or “re-tellings”. These encompass not just Handel, but also composers from Mozart to Britten, and more.

There are one or two quite specific musical references; for example I have used a motif from Beethoven’s final piano sonata which (at least according to Mann’s ‘Faustus’) represents “Fare-thee-well”, as it does also in my opera.

The strong Baroque musical influence is also reflected in the small orchestra, which features a harpsichord (doubling chamber organ), and naturally this prominent sound strongly shapes the overall feel of the piece. The part is not written (as in Handel) in figured bass – as that would pose more than a few challenges given the constantly-shifting harmonic (albeit often tonal) landscape of my score – it is fully written out, but still requires the player to conjure up the essence of semi-improvisatory Baroque performance.

harpsichord-extract

What/who do you think art is for? (!)

From the point of view of who? We all have our own function for art, and these functions seldom if ever coincide with the intentions of the original artist. Take Mona Lisa for example – it is one of the most visited paintings in the world, and it has been used to sell everything from crisps to coffee to software to Lego to headphones to airlines! But none of that was the intention of Leonardo, who was simply commissioned to produce a portrait of the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. So what is Mona Lisa for? For tourists to queue up and look at? For ad-men to sell with? For silk merchants to show off their money and wives? A store of cultural capital and prestige for the French Republic? Or for a jobbing portrait-painter to earn a crust?

All of these, and more, are “functions” of this particular work of art, and every other work of art to differing extents, and all of these are addressed in Madame X, especially when they brush up against each other and cause conflict. My character Masetto is an archetypical artist, and while he might just take each job as it comes and do the minimum that is required to satisfy the client, he also has his own motives, and it is the expression of these motives that transform a merely functional commission into a great work of art.

To relate this back to music, Stravinsky is reputed to have said that the key to being a successful composer was to think what you want to write next, and then persuade someone to commission it! This is quite the opposite to what the silk merchant might have expected when he hired Leonardo, but perhaps the artist had a vision of an enigmatic smile, and all he needed was to find a wealthy patron, with a suitably beautiful wife, to pay him to paint it…

MADAME X, the new opera by Tim Benjamin, is featured in the 2014 Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, London, 25th, 26th, and 27th August.

Buy tickets

Madame X website

Meet the Artist……Tim Benjamin

Meet the Artist……Oliver Rudland, composer

Oliver photoWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

Like a great many other composers, the initial impetus or inspiration to write came from a deep-seated desire to emulate (and often imitate!) the music I had encountered in childhood and adolescence, through performing and learning music – in my case, through brass bands, orchestras and youth opera (I was blessed by the fact that Leeds County Council has an amazing music service with many inspirational teachers). Over time, I discovered the great power of music to express ideas about the world and about oneself, and this awoke in me the desire to make composition my vocation.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your composing and your musical career to date? 

My initial passions were fired by the English pastoral school, perhaps best represented by Vaughan-Williams and Holst. After this, I went through a Steve Reich phase (pun intended!), which had a very substantial impact upon my development, since it led me to realise that tonality could still be used in original and meaningful ways. Subsequently, I underwent a somewhat obsessive infatuation with Wagner, whose protean use of a wide variety of musical influences to create dramatic works of enormous philosophical depth planted in me the ambition to write opera. At this point, I re-discovered Benjamin Britten, who I came to see as a composer who had achieved equal dramatic mastery and psychological understanding, but in a more English and down-to-earth manner.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Undoubtedly my first two operas. Through these, I have learnt how to synthesise all my musical influences and gradually, from naïve beginnings, to write music and libretti which not only work poetically and musically but which also function well dramatically on the stage. Organising the performances and staging productions was just as much a challenge as the actual composition. For my first opera, The Nightingale and the Rose (after Oscar Wilde), written while I was still an undergraduate, I combined an orchestra of RCM students with the hundred-strong Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir and professional opera singers. My children’s opera, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark (after Jill Tomlinson), then involved co-ordinating sixty primary-school children from around Cambridgeshire with professional musicians, as well as singers from Cambridge University, which was an even more formidable logistical challenge, since it meant one had to deal not only with some fairly mischievous young spirits, but also with their anxious parents!

What are the particular pleasures/challenges of working with individual artists, ensembles or orchestras? 

I always enjoy working with musicians and artists to bring a project into being. I would consider myself the entrepreneurial type, and tend to gather together a team of creative people to build a project around a dramatic conception. Collaboration involves a balance between allowing plenty of creative freedom to the individuals that you are working with, whilst striving to direct everybody’s energies towards a mutual goal. Maintaining this balance without creating too many frictions and tensions is always a challenge; the trick is to find people who share your ideals.

Please tell us more about your new opera Pincher Martin

Pincher Martin is an operatic adaptation of William Golding’s novel and poetic masterpiece. Recreating on the stage the existential plight of a marooned naval officer who struggles to survive first in the ocean, then on a lonely rocky islet in the middle of the Atlantic, has stretched my imagination to the limit, and has required the use of devices and technology which were previously unfamiliar to me. Throughout the course of the drama, we will be using a silver-screen movie-style cinematic backdrop, both to aid us in realising difficult scenarios such as a man drowning in the Atlantic, and to evoke the drama’s World War II setting.

Just one example of how this will work in practice is a scene in a moving motorcar, where the protagonist terrifies a woman with his dangerous and aggressive driving in a terrible attempt to make her acquiesce to his desires (yes, this is in the book…!). Musically, I have accompanied this scene with continuous unpitched and then pitched fluttertongues in four solo brass instruments, to evoke the sound of a car engine, first stationary and then in faster and faster motion. In terms of staging, this coordinates with the film, in that what is displayed on the screen is the view seen from the back seat of a car, first shaking very slightly as the car is parked in a layby with its engine idling, and then changing as the car moves off down the road. This is combined on-stage with the set, which in this case consists of a car bonnet behind which the protagonists will sit, with the backseat view behind them on the film. The bonnet itself is half-car, half-rock-like in substance, so that we can move expeditiously from a scene taking place on the rocky islet to this memory scene in the car, whilst also suggesting to the audience that the rock is actually an imaginary environment created by Pincher’s subconscious, and that we are dealing with scenes from his past life, which he is recalling during his purgatorial existence on the island.

Using this synthesis of music, film and staging to bring William Golding’s story to life has been an incredibly difficult challenge, but one which I am very glad to be undertaking, as it has expanded my creative world substantially.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers? 

To be yourself whilst learning from others.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To build a life where I can continue to realise my musical and dramatic ideas, whilst also starting a family with my wonderful and brilliant wife Helen (whose ambitions equal mine in her own field of scholarship), balancing both of these enormous challenges in harmony.

Oliver Rudland’s opera Pincher Martin is at the Royal College of Music from 24-26 July. Tickets available here

http://pinchermartinopera.com/

View the trailer

 

Oliver Rudland was born in West Yorkshire in 1983. He studied composition with Huw Watkins and Joseph Horovitz and piano with Niel Immelman at the Royal College of Music as a Foundation Scholar, and then studied at Cambridge University with Robin Holloway, where he also taught harmony and counterpoint for five years. 

His orchestral music has been played in masterclasses directed by James MacMillan, Colin Matthews and Mark-Anthony Turnage, and he has had chamber works performed at the Cheltenham International Music Festival, the Southbank Centre, and the DiMenna Center (NYC), as well as at other venues across the U.S. and Europe. Oliver’s works have been performed by, among others, Matthew Gee (principal trombonist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), the Britten Sinfonia, the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir, and Gonville and Caius College Chapel Choir. 

Oliver’s first opera, The Nightingale and the Rose, received its première at the Royal College of Music, London, and was then staged at the Carriageworks Theatre for four nights in 2008 by Leeds Youth Opera. ‘Exceptional talent…Oliver is going to be a big name in the future.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post) 

In 2011, he staged a production of his children’s opera, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark, based on the classic story by Jill Tomlinson, which received very positive reviews from audiences and critics alike. ‘This was children’s opera at its best; it was fun and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds,’ (GSM News). Further productions of this opera are planned for Leeds (2015) and Freiburg imBreisgau, Germany.  

Future projects include a commission for a new choral work for Leeds Grammar School’s nine lessons and carols service, and a commercial recording of his choral music directed by Michael Waldron. For more information please visit: www.oliverrudland.co.uk

Meet the Artist……Lauren Redhead, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I hadn’t considered composing as a career until relatively late in life: at university. When I was younger I was very inspired by the first organ teacher that I had, and I wanted to be like her and teach music to young people. By the time I arrived at university I was both interested in contemporary music and aware that, as an organist, I wasn’t involved in a lot of the activities that most music students are—orchestras and the like—so was looking for something that reflected my interests. I’d had a traumatic time doing my performance diploma and was convinced that performing would never be for me, but I also believed that composition was a matter of innate ability and not hard work (as many students do at 18). It was only when, encouraged by my lecturer, I entered—and won!—the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Young Composers’ Competition that I began to imagine that there might be some sort of future in it for me.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

The lecturer who invited me to enter the competition that I have mentioned, Dr Mic Spencer at the University of Leeds, was a significant influence on my musical development, in particular because he was willing to lend me so many CDs, books and scores when I expressed an interest in New Music. By doing so he allowed me to listen to and learn about music which would have otherwise been completely inaccessible including most of the (at the time) more recent developments in Europe which are so rarely, if ever, performed or even mentioned in the UK. This music in itself was a huge influence on me and opened my ears to so many more possibilities than I had previously considered.

The composer Chris Newman was also a big influence on my work; I greatly admire the music and the art that he makes, and in discussing both my work and his ideas with me he encouraged me to be uncompromising in my work and ideas.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The most challenging time for me was a couple of years ago when I was travelling all the time, teaching in a lot of different places, and struggling to find time to work on pieces. However, this also taught me a lot of skills which help me to work under pressure now. The image of the composer toiling away in a darkened room is very much not the reality! The most challenging project I worked on was probably the opera, green angel, that I wrote from 2010-2011 with librettist and theatre director Adam Strickson. The challenges here were working collaboratively, working in the theatre which was also new to me then, and producing such a long work (75 minutes in total). The opera also went through a very intensive rehearsal process: 6 days from the first rehearsal until the opening performance and this was a completely unfamiliar way of working for me as well. However, the musicians that we worked with were all excellent and extremely dedicated which made all the difference.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The most recent commission that I have worked on was from the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds. The commission was for a new choral piece that also celebrated the centenary of the discovery of crystallography by William Lawrence and William Henry Bragg. The challenge with such a commission is not just to respond to the brief which involves learning a whole lot of new things about something that you haven’t previously thought about—in this case, about Chemistry—but also to respond in such a way that there is a meaningful relationship between the impetus for the commission and the resultant music. This means that each time it is necessary to re-think one’s approach to composition as a discipline; it’s not sufficient just to draw upon techniques and ideas from the past. This is both difficult, sometimes incredibly so, but also extremely satisfying and rewarding.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

There are different challenges when working with all sorts of musicians, and I’m really lucky because most of the time I’m now working with musicians who are either contemporary music specialists or people who are extremely enthusiastic about and dedicated to the pieces that they perform. I really enjoy working with pianist Ian Pace, who has performed two of my works, not least because as well as being an excellent pianist he is also extremely insightful about the music that he performs. A lot of my work involved open or graphic approaches to notation, and I’ve also really enjoyed working with specialist performers on this type of piece. It can be a challenge to present this type of notation to unfamiliar performers. Recently I’ve worked with the group Vocal Constructivists on the piece concerto and with trombonist Gail Brand on the piece ‘entoptic landscape’. When musicians like these are so skilled at working with the type of notational challenges I present to them there’s the opportunity for dialogue and rewarding exchange which also helps me to go further as a composer.

Which works are you most proud of?  

This is a difficult question to answer! Usually, the most recent music I’ve written represents best my current thinking about music and composition, so in this case it would be the piece a common method, written for the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds, which I’ve most recently finished. I’m also extremely proud of the piece ‘/’(h)weTH’ which is a collaborate and multi-media piece that I wrote in 2012 with US visual artist R. Armstrong. This collaboration really challenged me to extend and develop my ideas and this was perhaps a turning point for me in the way that I approach many aspects of my work.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

I really enjoy when music is performed in unfamiliar places. I like the idea than any spaces can be re-purposed to become musical, and that the concert hall can become part of the staging of a work itself. In September 2013 Ian Pace performed my piano piece, i am but one small instrument, at the festival Firenze Suona Contemporanea (http://www.flamensemble.com/en/) which takes place in the Bargello Museum which is actually a mediaeval prison that has become an art museum. The concerts take place in the open-air atrium at the centre of the building. This is perhaps one of my favourite ever concert venues.

As an organist my favourite place to perform at the moment is St Laurence Church in Catford. This church was built in 1968 and has beautiful modern architecture and stained glass. It doesn’t house a very big organ but the instrument is quite powerful for its size and makes a great sound. This is the venue for the ‘Automatronic’ (http://automatronic.co.uk) concert series for organ and electronics that I organise with Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure .

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

This is another difficult question. All of the composers that I work with as an organist are important to me; some of the best experiences I have relating to music are when others share their ideas with me, and the kind of collaborations I have had with some of the composers whose music I perform are very important.

For many years as a student the music of Mathias Spahlinger was usually very close to the top of my CD pile. I also love to listen to the music of Sainkho Namtchylak, particularly the way her compositions and performances include so many influences and that she is so  confident in presenting her ideas.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Perhaps some of the most memorable experiences that I have had were of hearing live performances for the first time of large works by composers I had only heard on CD at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. A particular example that stands out is the world premiere of Concertini by Helmut Lachenmann. But I can think of many examples of fantastic live music experiences, perhaps most recently at the ‘free range’ experimental music series in Canterbury (http://free-range.co) last week. This weekly concert series is memorable every time I go to it, and although so much of contemporary music culture seems based around recordings these days I think that live music is still most important.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

The most important thing for any musicians to do, students or otherwise, is to listen to—and try to come to understand—as much music as possible, and particularly unfamiliar music. This is an idea that I come back to in my own life very often: it’s not possible to spend too much time discovering new music. In addition, I always try to impress on the student composers that I work with the importance of learning technique. Techniques can always be re-worked and re-purposed and, no matter what type of music you want to compose, being able to manipulate sounds and ideas—and to take these from one setting and use them in another—will always help to realise your ideas. Finally, I try to encourage all students to consider compositional practice in a similar way to instrumental practice: do some every day, do warm-up exercises, do a lot that no-one will ever get to hear. Often we think that instrumental performance takes a lot of hard work but expect composers to be brilliant as a result of inspiration and nothing more. Nothing will take you further as a composer as much as hard work!

What are you working on at the moment? 

At the moment I’m preparing to take the programme of organ and electronics pieces on tour. The tour is co-produced by Sound and Music and is a great opportunity to perform the music that I’ve been learning as a performer. The next compositional project is more collaborative work with Adam Strickson (who I worked on the opera with). The piece is still very much in the developmental and ideas stage, but should be finished by the summer.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Most of my time is spent composing, performing, or teaching music, so I’m glad that I enjoy this. Outside of music-related work I love cooking, particularly for other people. I think that good food is an important part of having a fulfilling life as a musician.

Lauren Redhead is a composer, performer, and musicologist from the North of England. Her music has been performed by international artists such as Ian Pace, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas, BL!NDMAN ensemble and rarescale, and she has received commissions from Yorkshire Forward, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Making Music and the PRSF for Music, and Octopus Collective with the Arts Council of England. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England. Her music has been performed at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Gaudeamus Muziekweek, the London Ear Festival, and many locations throughout the UK and Europe. In 2013, her work was be performed in the, Belgium, Italy, Austria, the London Ear Festival, the London Contemporary Music Festival and the Full of Noises Festival in Barrow. In 2014 she will be involved in the Sounds New Festival as a composer and performer. A CD of her chamber works entitled tactile figures was released on the engraved glass label in 2012, and further works will be released on CD in 2014.

As an organ performer she has premiered notable works of experimental music by Chris Newman, Nick Williams, John Lely, and Scott McLaughlin, amongst others. Lauren is actively involved in promoting and commissioning new works for organ and electronics and graphic and open notation works for the organ. In 2013 she made her debut organ performance in North America at Wesleyan University and appeared at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. She co-curates the ‘Automatronic’ concert series for organ and electronics with Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure. In 2014 she will tour her organ and electronics programme throughout the UK with the support of Sound and Music.

 

Pianist Ian Pace performs Lauren Redhead’s i am but one small instrument on 16th June at Deptford Town Hall, London SE14. Full details here

weblog.laurenredhead.eu

Something rotten in the state of Thebes…..

‘Thebans’ by Julian Anderson. World Premiere, 3rd May 2014, English National Opera at the Coliseum

Disputed parentage, familial in-fighting, incest, the wisdom of elders ignored, political machinations, and a crowd baying for action..….. Not an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, but Ancient Greece: Sophocles’ three Theban plays translated into opera by British composer Julian Anderson and Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. Those familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex know that it can only end badly for ill deeds must be atoned and the gods will have their retribution.

Three full-length plays by Sophocles are telescoped into three acts to create an opera lasting around 100 minutes. The narrative is not chronological, with the middle act moving us forward to ‘Future’ and the death of Antigone. The final act, set in a shattered landscape of bare, blasted trees, pierced by thunder and lightning, plays out the Death of Oedipus, who, blind and frail,  finds peace in death. This last play, ‘Colonus’, was written shortly before Sophocles’ death in 406 BC.

A chronological telling of the story may have made the action more comprehensible, but composer and librettist wanted to create a drama which comments on the main themes of the narrative – human frailty and desperate acts – rather than simply “telling it as it is”. Thus the final act, in which Oedipus appeals to the good nature of the curiously homo-erotic Theseus, a bare-chested golden young King, beautifully, eerily portrayed by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie, has an air of meditation, resignation and completion. It is Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, who has the final word. Heart-wrenchingly sung by Julia Sporsen, the action closes on her crying out in the wilderness, with no hope of consolation. It is a bleak end to a savage tale.

All is not well in Thebes as the curtain rises on a brutalist scene of Act 1, created by towers of gabions (wire crates filled with rocks) and shadowy lighting. The crowd lie around the stage, cowed by the terrible plague that has infected the city, imploring Oedipus to save Thebes. An air of foreboding pervades the whole scene, enhanced by the chorus’s hissing sibilants and low murmurations. Indeed, throughout the opera, Julian Anderson’s chorus writing is excellent: menacing and accusatory in Act 1, bossy and fascist in Act II, and haunting and disembodied (sung offstage) in the final act.

Susan Bickley as Jocasta, Roland Wood as Oedipus (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The sparse, largely monochrome setting suits Anderson’s music. Sparely scored, it is the haunting, airy winds and crackling percussion which offer most musical impact, together with Frank McGuinness’ earthily poetic libretto. Oedipus, sung with warmth by Roland Wood (apparently suffering from a throat infection, but with no discernible difficulty in his delivery), is flawed and doubting, beset by anger. Creon (Peter Hoare) is mercurial, self-serving, always the politician, his smooth tenor voice perfectly matching his protean personality. Susan Bickley, the one element of colour as Jocasta in turquoise draperies, is at first hectoring, refuting the claims of the strangely androgynous Tiresias, and later panic-stricken and despairing. Much of the solo writing seems closer to recitative rather than aria, and this lends a greater sense of the key players commenting on their, and others’, actions, motives and emotions. Overall, the opera has an air of meditation, encouraging the observer to cogitate on the themes and symbols presented within the drama, rather than actively embrace them. The quality of singing, production, lighting and direction combine to create an opera which is engaging and convincing, yet strangely distant. Worthy, and worth seeing.

 

Jim Aitchison: inspired by Richter

“I like to compare my process of making art to the composing of music.”

Gerhard Richter

Composer Jim Aitchison draws inspiration from his personal interactions and relationships with some of the leading twentieth-century and contemporary artists in the UK and beyond, including John Hoyland, Richard Long, Antony Gormley, and Sir Terry Frost. In 2008/9 he was commissioned by Tate Modern, Henry Tillman and Jill Bradford and the PRSF Foundation for New Music to respond in music to the gallery’s Mark Rothko exhibition, the largest Rothko show for 30 years. His response was performed in the gallery amongst the paintings with horn player Michael Thompson, counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton and the Kreutzer Quartet.

Jim Aitchison’s latest project is his personal musical response to the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter and traverses aspects of Richter’s work such as chance, sequence , distance and memory to create a unique concert experience. Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study explores real geographical distance, for the work will be performed on four pianos simultaneously at four different venues, using Yamaha’s Disklavier technology. The “live” performance, and the trigger for the other simultaneous performances, will take place at the University of Falmouth, where pianist Roderick Chadwick will play the “parent” instrument. The other three pianos – at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths College and Yamaha Music, London – will be played remotely via broadband data transfer, and the exact nuances of Chadwick’s performance will be created in real time. Pictures from the Tate’s 2012 Gerhard Richter show will be projected during the performance.

Richter’s practice of passing the same images through a variety of processes or filters is also explored in Aitchison’s work: he has recomposed the same music for string quartet. It will be performed by the Kreutzer Quartet at the RAM and transmitted to all the other venues by audio link.

This fascinating blending of music, art and technology takes place on 22nd February 2014. I asked Jim about his influences and inspirations, his particular compositional methods, and how he translates his responses to a particular art work or works into music.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

From being relatively unaware as a child, the world of music crashed into my dim 11-year-old awareness in the form of Arthur Rubinstein’s coruscating RCA Appassionata recording, followed a little later by the televising of Vladimir Horowitz’s final London concert in 1982. I had never encountered eloquent intensity of this magnitude. In hindsight one might question aspects of the magnificent fading drama of Horowitz at this stage of his career, but the experience was electrifying and ushered in many years of preoccupation with 19th and early 20th-century pianism. I began composing at around this time with various futile attempts to emulate the major exponents of this, and it took a long time and significant effort to escape from thinking solely in terms of piano sonority, texture and timbre. In terms of becoming a ‘real’ composer (if I ever have done so) this emerged extremely slowly, and I consider myself very much as a late developer.

Who or what have been the most important influences (including non-musical influences) on your composing? 

Regarding sources of musical influence, these might appear conventional: largely Euro-centric art music, with a particular interest in the aura of the 19th century, but very much thinking of this in terms of how to engage with it now, and what such music might mean as experienced in the present with all of the complexities, problems and paradoxes therein, neither trying to create some kind of illusory, sanitised re-formulation of the past for the purposes of hiding from the present, or an amnesia-based rejection in order to repel the influence of the past.

This sense of ‘present’ in terms of a place to think about the past, and the here and now, manifested itself in around 2001, when I discovered a hitherto unrealised link in myself between the visual and the sounded, embodied specifically in using aspects of visual artworks to create music. Bringing my musical material into engagement with the gallery space and with some of the procedures and approaches used by contemporary artists has been a transformative experience for me as a composer.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

To date, I think encountering the work of Gerhard Richter and attempting to respond to it in music has perhaps been the most challenging and rewarding for me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers? 

It is almost impossible to answer this complex question, without the danger of propagating potentially meaningless and deceptive platitudes, as there are so many variables within any one person’s path and what is around them. I can only offer the rather lame suggestion that one should try to be as true as possible to one’s self, but perhaps make sure to ask, continuously throughout life, what those notions of ‘true’ and ‘self’ mean.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? You will have to wait and see!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? An ‘idea’ of happiness is something I try to be very wary of.

What do you enjoy doing most? (when not working) Walking in solitude, followed by good coffee.

What is your present state of mind? Restless

You say that your work is inspired by or in response to particular artwork/s and/or artists. Does a particular artwork/s prompt an immediate musical response in you, or is the process longer, more of a case of “living with” the art?  

Occasionally the response can be quite swift in onset (particularly the case here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH8zK5W-l7A), but usually it is a long and painful process of building a kind of scaffolding from the visual to the sounded. I particularly value the process of attempting to apply procedures in music that an artist has used in their visual construction, and this can become very involved, almost like learning aspects of a language before being able to say anything useful in it.

What are your intentions when composing with a painting as the subject?  

  • to “explain” musically the painting?  
  • to “extend” the painting? 
  • to make your own personal interpretation, musically? 

I think I would be absolutely horrified if anyone thought that I was attempting either to ‘explain’ or illustrate or even worse, ‘extend’ an artwork. I don’t even like to think of it as a ‘personal interpretation,’ rather, I prefer the idea of a conversation between different art objects, where the original art work might give me a set of starting points from which to create my own piece of music that may take off in its own directions. If there are illuminating links between the art and the music, then so much the better, but I do not see the artwork as a ‘life-support’ machine for my music and I don’t see either as necessary to ‘explain’ the other.

The interpretation of colour introduced into a musical composition – is that present at all?  

I am not synaesthetic, so there is no direct physiological correlation within me that I can draw upon to link colour with some kind of sounding outcome. However, the expressive and structural effects of colour that I encounter do inevitably find their way into the mix somehow. Previously, I have contrived intuitively simple correlative schemes between colours and different harmonies, which I have found very useful.

Portraits for a Study is inspired by the work of Gerhard Richter whose work contains distinct working methods/elements. How have you referenced these aspects in the music, in both the composition and the ways in which the piece will be performed? 

  • CHANCE  
  • UNCERTAINTY  
  • BLURRING  
  • COLOUR CHARTS 
  • SCRAPING OFF 
  • ABSTRACTION 

Are there any particular musical techniques you have employed to achieve these aspects? 

Yes, all of those elements you mention I have used to greater or lesser degrees within the pieces. Of all of them, abstraction in the sense that Richter uses it is rather hard to define here: as I understand it, in many other artists’ approaches to abstraction, what may be considered as a drive to transcend reality coupled with a kind of essentialising process, is in Richter’s hands, more a process founded upon establishing its own reality through the accumulation and erosion of visual material: a surface, not a doorway. In the case of my responses in Portraits for a Study, I decided to largely steer clear of direct engagement with this huge part of his output, though I hope to concentrate on this in a future project.

Chance and uncertainty, limited and mediated through formal procedures, have played an enormous role throughout Portraits for a Study, in a variety of ways. From harvesting and re-assembling tiny fragments of music by Bach and Beethoven according to simple pre-established rules, to creating transcriptions of photo-improvisations, to applying rigid filters to large spans of material, to using strict methods of cutting and re-ordering material, where the outcome of this is uncertain. Uncertainty is also built into the performance configuration itself: there is no way of knowing exactly how much of the data transferred between the remote Disklaviers over the Internet will come through and how this will affect the sounding result, as this is significantly dependant upon many variables.

Blurring, scraping off or erasure, palimpsest, the blow up, mechanical reproduction and copying, multiples and sequences (such as seen in the colour charts), are all filtering strategies that I see as establishing distance, levelling out, relative anonymity, and an aspiration towards the non-subjective intervention of the artist (a goal that I think is perhaps debateable in terms of whether it is always entirely fulfilled). I have sought compositional applications of all of these things: mechanically copying a whole Rondo by Dussek and then in one case blurring it almost beyond recognition through simple musical means, and in another, taking a fragment from the same piece, blowing it up six-fold and then completely erasing it and filling its duration with something else. In another instance, solo string pieces by Bach are buried under layers of musical ‘over-painting,’ some carefully contrived, others more coarsely applied. Multiples and sequences are used throughout the pieces, in the re-patterning of assembled fragments or in more intricately ordered cutting and re-positioning of segments of improvisations. Once again, the performance configuration is intimately invested in this: multiples, sequences and distance are created quite literally with 4 linked Disklavier pianos spread over 300 miles, and then the same material performed and transmitted again, re-composed for string quartet.

Has your investigation of the work of Gerhard Richter, which has significantly demonstrated the value of painting in the 21st century, assisted you in your question “what is the ‘correct ‘ kind of music to write in the early 2lst century”? 

I would say that Richter’s art has enabled me to find some kind of permission to remain entirely uncertain about this, and reassurance that this is OK, even if it still feels uncomfortable, confusing and worrying.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, for example the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick?  

I have been collaborating with the Kreutzer Quartet for nearly 10 years, and it has been an immense privilege to work with colleagues and friends who are true artists. The only real challenges are found in the great distance I live away from them, and to produce work worthy of their skills: I am indebted to their patience in dealing with my inadequacies. This is the first time that I have worked with Roderick and, once again, I am utterly spoiled by being able to collaborate with such an extraordinary musician.

Has working with other musicians’ influenced/changed/stimulated your creative processes?   

Absolutely, not only do I get almost instant feedback and data on critical aspects of the pieces written for them, but also wholly new insights on the music in rehearsal and performance that I hadn’t considered, and I also find early involvement with them often gives me indispensible approaches that I would not have thought of otherwise. This is what happens when you are able to work with musicians who have such breadth and depth in their wider artistic interests.

What are the particular challenges of working in a multimedia format, for example, with the Yamaha Disklavier?  

Firstly, I feel I ought to emphasize that the new music is actually written for solo piano (as well as in a different version for string quartet), not Disklavier, and as such, I hope that pianists may be interested in it in future. But yes, the idea is that the music will be performed on the Disklavier piano in this case, making use of the Disklavier’s ability to be connected to many other Disklaviers across a network. Thus, the sense of distance and automation apparently present in aspects of Richter’s art will be referred to via the configuration of one live pianist at Falmouth University triggering 3 remote Disklaviers 300 miles distant, to play exactly what he plays, and exactly how he performs (the potential for chance data aberrations in transfer notwithstanding), at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths and Yamaha Music London.

composer Jim Aitchison (photo: Richard Bram)

There are immense technical challenges in doing this and in reversing the polarity, when we will transmit the Kreutzer Quartet performing the re-composed version of the same music back from the Royal Academy of Music to all the other venues via audio-visual link. We have run a whole series of tests between the various institutions and will continue to do so up until the performance on 22nd of February 2014. The main challenges are logistic (co-ordinating a large group of people comprised of several different teams across 4 remote venues and from several other participating organisations, accessing and organising spaces and getting equipment transported and set up over a wide geographical area), and technical (dealing with the idiosyncrasies of a large communication system with many components devised and set up especially for this project).

One of the joys of working like this however is that of building fruitful collaborations, both existing and new. In addition to the wonderful musicians, Arts Council England, The PRS for Music Foundation, Yamaha, Falmouth University, the Royal Academy of Music and Goldsmiths, and with wonderful support from Tate, we have also been incredibly fortunate to find a new collaborator in the Europe-wide Vconect video conferencing research project that includes major partners such as EURESCOM – European Institute for Research and Strategic Studies in Telecommunications, British Telecommunications plc, Portugal Telecom, Alcatel-Lucent Bell, Goldsmiths University, University of London, Stichting Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung, JOANNEUM RESEARCH Forschungsgesellschaft and Falmouth University (http://www.vconect-project.eu/h)

Attend one of the performances:

University of Falmouth

Royal Academy of Music, London

Goldsmith’s College, University of London

Jim Aitchison’s biography

Meet the Artist……Martin Butler, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

It was the organ at Romsey Abbey. I was in the choir from the ages of about 8-10 and just had to get my hands on it! I could read music well and used to page turn for the organist. I begged him to let me play it, but he refused to let me until I’d got Grade 5 piano. By the time I did, I’d entirely lost interest in the organ and was already starting to get really interested in composing. But I bet there aren’t too many other 10-year-olds who know Bach’s complete organ works (from recordings)!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

Composers: Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Berio. Teachers: my main one (at the RNCM) Anthony Gilbert – I owe him so much in ways he never understands, however hard I try to explain to him; also Berio; and Paul Lansky and J. K. Randall at Princeton University. And then there are individual musicians I’ve admired and learned from at different times in my life and in different ways – Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Bernstein, Richard Barrett, Pat Metheney, Miles Davis… Right now I’m working with the folk singer Chris Wood, and finding him very inspirational. And playing in and writing for my band, notes inegales, and launching our Club recently with Peter Wiegold has been terrifically important to me. I’ve also found the landscapes, folk music and history of the United States musically stimulating ever since my teens.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I think ‘career’ is a daft concept, especially for a composer! I feel I’ve been lucky that people have wanted to play and listen to what I write (and sometimes pay for it too), and thankfully continue to do so. I suppose the greatest challenge is to keep what you do fresh and honest; and accepting that if you’re in it for the long haul, this means getting up every day and ploughing on, even when you don’t feel like it.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

Quite often a commissioned piece will be for a combination, or in a genre, or for an occasion for which you have little or no enthusiasm and it can be a challenge to drum some up! But that’s a good challenge. A composer should be flexible that way and it’s part of the job to adapt and tailor ideas to the task before you. If you can’t, don’t accept the commission. On the other hand, a commission can sometimes be collaborative and involve working with others to develop ideas and new ways of creating. When that works successfully it’s a deeply pleasurable experience, not least because it means you’ll have learned something new.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

It’s always a pleasure to write for or play with long-standing musical friends, simply because you know them well, can play to their strengths and can make music borne of a deep knowledge and understanding of their musicianship. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several such relationships, but I’d single out the Schubert Ensemble: I’ve written 4 or 5 pieces for them over the last 15 years and they’ve played a couple of these in excess of a hundred times! Each time I hear them play my music, it’s more ingrained and natural but also always fresh and illuminating. Playing with notes inegales on a regular basis is the same. We do a lot of free improvising, and it’s got to a stage now where we can predict what each other is going to do, individually and collectively – but not exactly: there’s always an unpredictable dimension, an element of risk that keeps our relationship exciting and fulfilling.

Which works are you most proud of?  

My two operas – Craig’s Progress and A Better Place because they involved the most, and the most varied kinds of work, including some wonderful collaborations! Also my orchestral piece, O Rio, and a handful of others that still ‘work’ for me after many years (in some cases). But, as always, everything is far from perfect and I own up to being yet another artist who’s never satisfied…

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not really. Our lovely basement bar at Club Inegales is a fine place to be for me right now!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Lots, of course. But I’ll always remember sitting in on rehearsals, then a performance of The Rite of Spring by my old college symphony orchestra (RNCM) when I was a student there. It was totally galvanising and revelatory – I learnt more then about how an orchestra works than at any time since. Also, my first ‘Ring’ cycle. There are no words.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Diligence; preparation for boredom, frustration and being misunderstood; faith; generosity of spirit; healthy mistrust in authority; no cutting corners; and above all artistic honesty.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working with Chris Wood on a big piece that we’ll be performing at Club Inegales with the band. There’s also an oboe concerto waiting in the wings, plus a handful of smaller things. I’m one of those composers who can only work on one thing at a time, though…

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

More or less where I am now, doing the same stuff, only better. And with an even better understanding of cooking.

The spring 2014 season of Club Inegales opens on 13th February. Further details here

Martin Butler was born in 1960 and studied at the University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Princeton University, USA. From September 1998 to July 1999 Butler was Composer-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the United States.  He is currently Professor of Music at the University of Sussex. 

Butler’s works are widely performed and broadcast both in the UK and abroad.  He has received commissions from, amongst others, the BBC (O Rio was first performed at the 1991 Proms), the London Sinfonietta (Concertino and Jazz Machines, of which the latter was played at the 1995 Venice Biennale), the Schubert Ensemble (American Rounds and Sequena Notturna) and the Brighton, Cheltenham, Canterbury, Norfolk & Norwich, and Presteigne festivals.  

In June 1994 Mecklenburgh Opera premiered the operatic adventure story Craig’s Progress, which was adapted for radio broadcast by BBC Radio 3.  His chamber opera A Better Place was premiered by ENO at the Coliseum in London in July 2001, and Two Rivers for choir and orchestra was premiered by the Oxford Bach Choir and The Britten Sinfonia in December 2001. Sentinels for string quartet and viola was premiered by the Brodsky Quartet and John Metcalfe at the 2006 Brighton Festival, and William Howard gave the premiere of Funérailles, a substantial work for piano, at the 2006 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. 

From 2006-8 Butler was the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s first ever ‘Composer in Focus’. The orchestra performed several large scale works during this period and his tenure culminated in two major performances of a new commission for the orchestra, From the Fairground of Dreams in January and March 2008 at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Recent works have included a Saxophone Concerto, commissioned by the Presteigne Festival, and Rondes d’Automne, a nonet premiered at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival and shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society award in 2012. 

 As a pianist, Martin has been active as soloist and with a number of ensembles, and is a founder member of the improvising new music collective, notes inegales. He is Associate Director of Club Inegales. 

 

 

Meet the Artist……David Braid

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My mother initially taught me the piano at home and I also took regular violin lessons. However, in what may be a glaring example of ‘instrument-determinism’, I never really enjoyed music until I found the guitar via a new Headmistress that arrived at my primary school: a wonderfully charismatic singing, accordion and guitar-playing nun from Ireland called Sister Annunciata. Incidentally, I’m still in touch with her – I always send her my ‘products’; my CDs, book, etc.

She taught me the guitar via Elvis/Beatles/Abba songs and everything just clicked from then, there was no question that I was not going to be a musician. I spent much of my teens playing guitar in rock bands, the fiddle in Welsh folk groups and after a brief fascination with jazz (specifically Django Reinhardt) I arrived at composition via classical guitar in my later teens; taking it joint-first study with guitar at The Royal College of Music.

I suppose it was a natural progression from emotive immediacy to complexity as one matures; having said that, I always loved Bach even when I was young and often raided my father’s vinyl collection; to listen to his organ music especially.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Sibelius – the incredible logic than you can hear clearly even on the first hearing and the sheer physicality of how the music moves through time.

Messiaen – outstanding, transcendental beauty an ‘other-worldly’ character that one cannot quite explain, his strong religious belief and spirituality transcends the notes, in a similar sense to how one can almost ‘taste’ the humanity and idealism in Beethoven.

Lutoslawski – precision, concise argument, clarity and large scale sweep of energy, what a craftsman!

Britten – he’s someone I grew into much later I have to admit but his skill in handling musical time, expectation and narrative is second to none of his time and he can be incredibly moving.

Shostakovich – such profundity; I can‘t understand how people can hold up figures like Stravinsky as being that important or even interesting when a giant like Shostakovich was around.

John Dowland – perfectly exquisite songs, not bettered since that I’m aware of – his songs are easily on the level of Schubert’s and I actually personally prefer them, although this is subjective (I also play the lute). Also, that British songwriting sound (still clearly audible in The Smiths for example – who are in a sense the true heirs to the Elizabethan school) means a lot to me.

Sweelinck – he’s truly remarkable and original – sitting on the divide between the Renaissance and Baroque periods; so lyrical yet a real contrapuntal animal to his guts!

I, together with the pianist Sergei Podebedov, have recently made some arrangements of his organ music for semi-acoustic archtop guitar and piano. We are premiering these at 4pm on July 21st at The Studio at St. James Theatre in Victoria. It is a great privilege to play this music. He is one of the best composers I know of – from any period!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Finding a modus vivendi that allows for the necessary peace of mind to compose and practice while earning enough money to have a civilised existence (as much as one can at this early stage of our evolution). I have finally achieved this by also working as a journalist, this frees me completely from teaching commitments and from doing any music that is not 100% on my own terms. Time is not an issue, I have no interest in sport or other such distractions – I find composing for more than 3 hours a day to be counterproductive, for me at least.

Another massive challenge – ‘though one that has largely disappeared now – was getting people to play my work. Very hard to do when you’re first starting out. One solution was to play/conduct it myself, the other is that I have a number of loyal friends from my college days, who are first class musicians and have helped me a lot by performing my work. This has naturally led to other contacts and opportunities

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Commissions are truly a double-edged sword, and although I’ve been fortunate to receive a fair few, I would never want to rely on them for a living unless I had quite a choice to pick from – although I’m not sure anyone has that luxury.

It is vital – to me anyway – that I follow each piece with the logical outcome that follows it, i.e. each piece informs and points to the next, even if only by contrast. To have this guided by someone else (or worse a ‘panel’) for mere cash is not something I could ever accept.

The last commission I had was for the incredibly well-armed (technically) choir, Chapelle du Roi for a piece at St. John’s Smith Square, I really loved doing this as I never had to think about limitations and writing for a cappella choir is about as pure as it gets.

Having said this, I’m not interested in dense complexity, experimental screeching, or other such dated things: it’s rather that the choir would know how to interpret and phrase a line and bring a piece of music to life without me having to guide them.

Other commissions, such as a few film scores I did, were less interesting really. Essentially the role of a film composer is that of a decorative artist, you’re not free to follow any musical logic but rather just provide a bunch of audio moods, signals and wallpaper.

I’d certainly turn down another film score offer unless it was something truly amazing such as a time-loop science-fiction film that allowed me to do interesting things with the formal structure. I think in the future the idea of music serving film may be reversed as people’s listening habits become more sophisticated; although who knows, anything can happen – no one saw the internet coming!

A move towards more musical sophistication appears to be happening though: the hold of the more primitive forms of popular music is finally slipping as seen in the arrival of such things as ‘post-rock’, the strong interest in the often highly-complex music of other cultures, and the innovative programming ideas of holding classical concerts in more social settings such as Wilton’s music hall.

People love music – the problem that (good) popular music faces is the greed and associated controlling aspects of major recording companies that spoil it all.

I would be very happy indeed to see the major labels all collapse through piracy and file sharing – poetic justice! The smaller independents such as Linn/Toccata/Guild are amazing – models of enthusiasm and true love of music. These would flourish without the obsolete behemoths of Virgin, et al around.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

It is a pleasure when working with good people who have an inquisitive mind and are not there simply for the money. Otherwise it is a compromise and is frustrating. I have been pretty fortunate though in that I have, more often than not, had first-rate players and sympathetic people who really get what I’m trying to do.

Although I had a brief spell as a ‘hairy-chested’ modernist, I have moved away from this over time and generally have very few or no problems in rehearsals as I try and make everything totally clear and natural for the players in the score.

Going back to modernism for a second I would like to say I that I have come to the conclusion that it is now largely (with some obvious exceptions) unfortunately morphed into intellectual onanism and appeals to no one at all outside those composers and academics who rely on it for their very living from the various grants/arts funding bodies that support it.

It has become a dictatorial institution with Boulez as its ‘Dear Leader’. This is ironic given that it started as a rebellion. However, the fire that existed in those early modernist works is long gone as it has now become the establishment. The same thing happened to Rock and Roll, which is why punk was absolutely necessary in order to kill it stone dead and allow new things with real integrity to then flourish.

This doesn’t mean we have to write in pastiche or turn to simplistic popularism, we clearly need to look ahead, but the standard fare of atonal, or just ugly, meaningless squawk one always hears at contemporary music concerts is now a hackneyed cliché and insulting to intelligent open-minded people who have paid good money to come and hear music – I can no longer bear to attend such things. I, like most of the public, would rather go to the cinema and see a well-made artwork which has cultural relevance.

I would say to a young composer – be a rebel! Write something in D major, annoy your professor, but make it so damned interesting and beautiful that he/she has nothing to say; that is the real challenge for us now.

Contemporary classical music in the UK occupies exactly the same space as bullfighting does in Spain – it is entirely supported by the state and is ignored by 95% of the population. Take that support away and allow it to attempt to function as a genuine living art form that is an honest deal between listeners and composers – it would most certainly die in the time it takes to play a Bach prelude (one of the short ones!).

Given a choice – although I believe very strongly that all funding should be cut for new music and given to hospitals instead – in order to breathe new life into it, I would sooner see all funding cut from bullfighting of course!

Which works are you most proud of?

Hard to say – they all have something(s) that could be improved. The setting of Pablo Neruda I did for soprano and string quartet, ‘Morning’, works ok. I’ve had very strong feedback about it – people seem to love it. It’s the first track on my current CD with Toccata Classic. Steve Reich called this piece “Very honest stuff” so I suppose I got something right.

I’ve been writing a lot of lute and guitar music recently which I perform myself – I enjoy this so much, it feels so free playing one’s one music, I can change, improve things – improvise a little here and there. It’s a wonderful thing. I always feel it’s a shame that so few composers perform their own music (or even perform at all) I think they’re missing out on tactile, immediate and invaluable feedback on what works the best and most importantly – why.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I love the Wigmore’s sound but it needs to bring in a younger audience or it will turn into a museum. This cannot be done by pulling in DJs and other trendy things that they tried to do recently – that just insults intelligent people.

They should give free tickets to all music students as matter of course. They should also give free hire (as opposed to the £1400 it costs) for music graduates for their first 4-5 years after college.

This would allow for fascinating and energetic projects to happen naturally and the players would bring all their friends and probably fill it – it’s not that hard – I’ve nearly filled it once. It would bring strong and long-lasting loyalty to the hall among the young and would actually make economic sense over less than a decade even. Otherwise, the way things are going, it could become another shop for expensive medical products like the others on Wigmore Street, this would be a tragedy. They also need to stop commissioning composers – one contemporary piece on a programme is enough for many music lovers to not attend. This is a sad truth and something that composers need to address urgently by re-engaging with the public instead of experimenting on them!

I also love the Barbican main hall though I’ve not had a piece done there. I love its clean modern lines and bright acoustic bounce. The Southbank is great too – a real feel of democratic openness pervades the entire complex: I love it. I’ve had a couple of Southbank things, it’s always been brilliantly done from their side and the halls really have something special about them.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Performers (living): Baroque violinist Andrew Manze, lute players Jacob Lindberg and Paul O’Dette, Julian Bream, Marta Argerich, Murray Perahia, the Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Emma Kirkby and Johnny Marr.

(Dead) – Glenn Gould, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Solomon, Wanda Landowska, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thomas Beecham

Composers – largely covered above in the answer to Q.2 above though I love so many others too of course.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Julian Bream at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in the early 1990s – it was perfect. It’s not only that he sings though the instrument but rather that he is the greatest such singer of all that I’ve heard (since Gould died). I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Ignore all fashions such as atonality, the new tonality, minimalism, new complexity, etc., and listen to your instinct, never compromise on your values for any reason.

Ask yourself why you want to be musician, if the answer is anything less than – “because I have to /I’m compelled to” then give up the place to someone who can say that.

Try to listen and understand everything, even music you don’t like, to find out why you don’t like it. Is it because something in it doesn’t work (this can be the case – don’t feel bad about coming to that conclusion) or is it because you have cultural blinkers on? This is not easy.

If you’re going for composition learn counterpoint and fugue properly – don’t just brush across it like they teach at the colleges here (skimming it in ‘techniques’ lessons is not even close to being good enough for a composer).

Write about 15 of them in different ways, chromatics, doubles, 6 voice, the lot. Study Bach and Buxtehude very closely. This will show you how the vertical and linear aspects of music combine to make music with depth; one dimensional music is not acceptable.

Once this is mastered you can apply it to any style: Fugue is not a form but a way of thinking. If you can’t be bothered doing this then do not expect to be a strong composer, go and work in the city instead – at least then you’ll have a good wage and is much easier than music!

What are you working on at the moment?

Funnily enough given my advice above, I’m writing a prelude and double fugue for clarinet, semi-acoustic archtop guitar and piano. I will premiere this at The Forge in Camden in January.

What is your present state of mind?

My standard nervous alternation between grim dissatisfaction and bliss plus total confusion as to the absurd state of mankind and the world – this is very good – it compels me to act!

David Braid performs at the 1901 Arts Club on Friday 9th May with pianist Sergei Podobedov. They will premiere their new (2014) transcriptions of works by Sweelinck plus Byrd, Gibbons and other composers from the C.15th/16th Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, alongside first performances of new duos and solos by David Braid, plus various solos by Chopin and other later composers. Further details here

London-based Welsh-born composer David Braid studied at the Royal College of Music from 1990-94, taking joint-first study in Guitar with Charles Ramirez and Composition with Edwin Roxburgh; also attending the composition classes of George Benjamin.

David later attended the Cracow Academy of Music in Poland, studying composition with the late Marek Stachowski and Zbigneiw Bujarksi, subsequently going on to The University of Oxford (St. Anne’s College) under Robert Saxton.

In addition to the UK, David’s work has been performed in the USA, Germany, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and South America. Recently, the string orchestra version of his setting of Pablo Neruda’s poem Mañana, ‘Morning’, Opus 3, was premiered in Moscow.

David Braid’s full biography

David’s debut recording of Chamber and Instrumental Music is available on CD or to download from Toccata Classic. Further information here

Meet the Artist……Richard Greer, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I have never thought of it as a career. It is something more than that.  As far back as I can remember music has been the thing in my life, is and will be.

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing? 

Dr. Gordon McPherson, Ravel, Morton Feldman, John Adams, Steve Reich, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Olav Anton Thommessen, Harrison Birtwistle, Bartok, Shostakovich, Talk Talk, Prefab Sprout, Bach, Admiral Fallow, A-ha, John Martyn, Ligeti, Koechlin, Satie, Nicole Lizee, Nancarrow, Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Webern, Yannis Kyriakides, John Cage, John Lautner, William Boyd, Steven Hall, Zoe Strachan, Primo Levi, Van Gogh, Rothko, Rembrandt, Pollock, Renee LeGrande, David Hockney, Stanley Kubrick, John Keats, Robert Burns, Norman McCaig, Wilfred Owen, Marion Colyer, Shakespeare, Star Trek, Sergei Leone, nature, travel, science and space flight.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Every piece offers its own challenges. If I were to pick one it would be the first proper piece I wrote for orchestra – Ridge A. It is all about the coldest, driest and calmest place on earth which was discovered in 2009.

I spent nine months writing it alongside the rest of my folio in the final year of my BMus  and the technical leap it required from me was significant. I studied a lot of the orchestral repertoire and sat in on orchestral rehearsals at college. I realised afterwards that Takemitsu and Sibelius were important influences on the piece.

Standing in front of eighty people and answering questions about your work is quite intimidating, but it was a great experience in the end. The orchestra played it beautifully. The conductor, Christian Kluxen, was fantastic and I hope I can work with him again.

Which compositions are you most proud of?

I was very proud to be commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on their collaboration – ‘Heart of Govan’ – with CRAN Theatre to celebrate the peoples and history of Govan and their historic Govan Parish Church.

Also my piece ‘Sober Observer Sees (HD)’ to be selected by Ensemble Modern for performance in 2012.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

My favourite venue in Glasgow is The City Halls, which sound fantastic.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

Ravel’s ‘Piano Trio in A Minor’ and ‘La Valse’, The ‘Adagietto’ from Mahler 5, Ligeti’s String Quartets, Thomessens ‘From Above’ and ‘Beyond Neon’ .

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Lots! Many for different reasons. I love Glen Gould, especially his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Nina Simone is a very powerful performer.

I have been lucky enough to have had some incredible performances of my work and I am very grateful to the hard work and dedication shown by those musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The guitarist Pavel Steidl visited the RCS twice and each concert, all solo guitar, were amazing.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Work hard, be true to yourself but admit to yourself when you know other people’s advice is valid. Always do what is best for the music, not yourself, and have fun. Only write music you love and write about what you want.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently making final edits on a 15 minute solo guitar work called ‘Treasures’. It is in three movements and is about the relationship between memory and objects, such as old photographs. It is dedicated to Anthony Winton.

I am about to start work on a new piece and there are a few projects in the pipeline.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Living on the coast of the Mediterranean and supporting myself by commissions!

Richard Greer was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland where he has recently completed a Masters in Composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland studying with Dr. Gordon McPherson.  His works have been performed by various individuals and ensembles, including Guitarist Sean Shibe, Soprano Claire Thompson, Trumpeter Andrew Connell-Smith, MusicLab, the Viridian Quartet, The Expedition, Red Note Ensemble, Said Ensemble, the RCS Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on their ‘Heart of Govan’ Project, and Ensemble Modern.

http://composergreer.co.uk/

Meet the Artist……Jenni Pinnock, pianist and composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started improvising and composing as soon as I began playing. My teachers, friends and family were very supportive, nurturing and inspiring throughout, and I spent all my breaks and lunchtimes at school singing, playing, improvising and composing nonsense songs with friends. I would write songs and play and sing in school concerts, and I remember helping to arrange music for the school orchestra at middle school! I knew from quite early on that writing and making music was what I had to do.

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing?

I believe my music comes from a melting pot of everything musical I’ve encountered – whether it’s music I’ve played, loved or hated, just experiencing it has an effect on my musical voice. However, some influences will have more sway than others. Javanese gamelan music has played a large part in my life for a number of years, and its influences can be heard throughout my music. Musical theatre is another huge influence on my music, alongside big band music, Beethoven, Debussy and Karl Jenkins. I must also mention that I find a lot of ‘current’ composers hugely inspiring – including many I’ve met through social media such as Twitter.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think the greatest challenge to many who work in the arts is the issue of balance in their lives. For me, it’s balancing composition with family life – especially when I’m looking after a toddler and a new idea bounces into my head!

Which compositions are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one! I’m proud of Surakartan Haze as it was the first full orchestral piece of mine that was workshopped and performed. I’m also proud of Bells in the Rain as it’s a piece I’m very happy with, and that I wrote in the first couple of months of my daughter’s life.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

As with most composers, I’m quite happy with any venue in which my music is to be presented! However, I’m becoming more interested in less traditional venues, which are consequently more accessible to those who are not normally accustomed to classical music. We need to do something to help engage others in classical music, and the traditional concert hall seems to be a large obstacle – so why not remove it from the equation? Venues such as Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and St Ethelburgas church in Liverpool Street, London are examples of venues I’ve visited or performed in recently that I feel make good, accessible venues.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I wouldn’t say I have specific favourites to perform, but two that would make the list (choir wise) are Fauré’s Requiem (as an alto) and the Chichester Psalms. I love playing in orchestras and big bands, but I find there’s something so personal and powerful about the voice. Listening wise, there are too many favourites to pick. Epic, powerful pieces tend to be my music of choice, with In The Hall of the Mountain King and Wieniawski’s Szcherzo-Tarantelle being high on the list.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, I don’t really have favourites. The qualities I admire and seek out in musicians are that they are skilled at their craft, but that they communicate through their music, and add that all important extra dimension to their performance.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are a few, but one in particular is Steve Reich’s prom celebrating his 75th birthday at the 2011 BBC Proms series. I was particularly mesmerised by Ensemble Modern’s interpretation of his Music for 18 Musicians.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think the most important concept is to remember that music is an incredibly powerful force, and that in the end it’s just that – music. It’s an organisation of sounds in time, and there are no rights or wrongs. Composers and performers of years gone by lived in musical societies where certain styles of music were the order of the day, or certain performance practices had to be conformed by to be accepted. That’s no longer the case, and we live in such a free musical society that nothing is wrong. However, as a result, there is a saturation of music everywhere, which can mean as composers we have a battle to be heard. My advice would be to be determined and keep working at it – and to value all your colleagues, as you never know who may help you find your next opportunity.

What are you working on at the moment?

My composition practice tends to involve working on several pieces at the same time. Right now I’m working on a Requiem (my labour of love, which gets some attention in between other projects!), a string quartet, and a collection of works for piano.

What is your present state of mind?

My state of mind at the moment tends to flick between happy and at peace, and slight frustration. I think I’m finally achieving balance and have a nice range of projects ongoing –the frustration comes in when the rest of the world takes over and I have the next section of a work in my head but no time to get it down on paper (or on computer!).

A unique combination of influences and interests help make composer Jenni Pinnock a distinctive voice in contemporary composition world. A versatile performer on piano, oboe and saxophone, a range of ensembles and opportunities have given Jenni an incredibly varied musical diet of genres, instrumentation and styles. Alongside more typical ensembles are the Javanese gamelan and church bell ringing.

Recent performances include her work Ori for small ensemble and electronics, her bassoon and ‘cello duet Double Helix and her art song Bells in the Rain. Current projects include a string quartet, a Requiem, and a work for brass quintet and electronics. In recent years she has had works performed at the International Youth Arts Festival, the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music (as part of the Orgelbüchlein project), and at Colchester New Music workshops and events.

Originally from Hertfordshire, Jenni graduated with first class honours from her BMus (hons) at Kingston University and then embarked on an intensive Masters in composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance studying with Stephen Montague and Greg Rose. A member of the ISM, alongside her compositional endeavours she teaches instrumental lessons and arranges music, both of which act as constant sources of inspiration. She is a member of Colchester New Music and Liquorice composers collectives.

www.jennipinnock.com

Meet the Artist……Debbie Wiseman, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I’ve always been interested in melody, and when I started to learn the piano at about 8 years old, as well as learning the standard repertoire, I was also fascinated by how melodies worked and wanted to compose my own tunes. It was much later, when I studied at music college, that I realised that I wanted it to be my career. Although I love playing the piano, I was much more interested in creating and composing my own music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

There were two big influences. One was a music teacher at the Junior department at Trinity College of Music, Philip Colman, who instilled a passion for music-making and a love of inprovisation which I’ve taken through into my professional life. The second was my composition tutor at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Buxton Orr, who was an inspiring and brilliant teacher.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Writing large scores in a very short space of time is always a challenge, but it’s something that I find much easier now than I did, say, 10 years ago. It’s a skill that is acquired with experience, and recently I scored a film called “The Whale” in just 3 weeks. The film had 45 minutes of orchestral music. My score for the film “Wilde” was written in just three and a half weeks, with around 60 minutes of orchestral music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece, and on film/tv scores? 

The great delight of working on a film is that the inspiration is right in front of you, on the screen. It’s also hugely rewarding to hear your music performed by the very best orchestral musicians, usually as the ink is still drying on the manuscript paper! The challenges are always the time constraints – everything is composed to a deadline, and the deadlines seem to be getting tighter and tighter!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

We are so fortunate in London to have the most talented musicians to perform our music. I am constantly amazed by the professionalism, skill, and musicality of our session musicians and orchestras. I’ve worked with a vast array of brilliant session musicians, and I have also recorded many times with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Which works are you most proud of?  

I’m very proud of my score for the French film “Arsene Lupin”. It was an enormous challenge as there was over 2 hours of music in the film, and a huge variety of musical styles within the score too. We recorded over 3 days with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios and it was wonderful hearing the score brought to life by the orchestra.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

I’ve been very fortunate to have conducted at both the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall and I love both venues! I have a concert coming up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on December 8th at Cadogan Hall which is always great fun. Come along! (Details here)

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I have many, but I do love the playing of Maxim Vengerov. He always tells a story with his performance which appeals to me as, when you’re composing for pictures, you are constantly aware of the story and the drama, and that the music must help the telling of the story.

What is your most memorable concert experience (as performer and/or as composer)? 

The last concert Christmas concert that I conducted at Cadogan Hall with the RPO was wonderful. The hall was packed and the audience were very responsive – we even had them clapping along during the encore!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

To be dedicated, hard-working and completely focussed on the music, whether playing it or writing it.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve just completed “The Whale” for the BBC – a film about the true-life story that inspired Moby Dick. I’m also writing the score for “A Poet In New York” – a film about the last days of Dylan Thomas. There is also a second series of the BBC drama “Father Brown” which I’ve recently completing.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

I enjoy being at the piano, writing music. It never loses its wonder and magic.

Debbie Wiseman conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on 8th December in the Magic of Christmas, a concert in aid of the Breast Cancer Campaign. The programme features Debbie’s own compositions, and much-loved seasonal works by Tchaikovsky. Full details and tickets here

Interview date: October 2013