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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Free instrumental lessons in primary school in the 1970s were pretty important. Someone from the London Borough of Brent music service came into our class and we all did various kinds of ear tests which involved saying if a note was high or lower than another, or louder or quieter. Apparently I did ok which meant I was allowed to learn the violin. From then onwards, I was always making up my own tunes and improvising. Then I struck lucky going to study at Huddersfield Polytechnic in the late 1980s. It was very immersive time, what with the festival, and we were really encouraged to compose and present our own works in performance.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Both Dutch and Polish contemporary music has been very influential for me. I spent three years studying composition in Poland which was a very liberating time, and I was attracted to the physicality of sound in a lot of contemporary Polish music. There is also a directness and rawness to a lot of Dutch music, and a sense that everything can be accommodated; that we can draw upon everything that has been a meaningful part of our musical past irrespective of genre. But perhaps the biggest influence in the last decade or so has been spending such a lot of time with my composition colleagues and students at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’ve learnt so much from them.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I think challenges and frustrations can be positive as well as negative. In recent years, my time for composing has been quite stretched, with a pretty demanding teaching position and also having a young child, but then it’s meant I have to use the time available well, whilst also challenging the way I work. It means I have to be more relaxed and let go of the inner-perfectionist demon, which has perhaps resulted in a different sort of music.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?*
Every piece brings both pleasure and pain, although hopefully much more pleasure ultimately. There’s the struggle of the blank page at the beginning, and then the joy of something previously unimagined coming into being little by little. The context of the commission is important to me; who is it being written for? Whose commissioned it? What’s the context for the performance? I want to bring as much if that as I can into the piece and create something intimate.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I’ve been lucky to work with a few very special performers quite regularly over a number of years, people like the Fidelio Trio, Orkest de Ereprijs, Sarah Leonard and my own collective Noszferatu. They’re close friends and that sort of relationship leads to a special trust or bond that develops over time. That’s a really great pleasure. Then there are new projects with people you haven’t worked with before, and there’s often a great excitement and energy to these as you begin to work out what makes each other tick.
Of which works are you most proud?
I’m proud of all the pieces on my latest NMC album, ‘Elsewhereness’, and also the previous albums Bartlebooth (NMC) and Boogie Nights (Birmingham Record Company).
How would you characterise your compositional language?
The language can be quite multi-faceted, drawing upon broad range of influences from post-minimalism and jazz through to the baroque and experimentalism. I aim to absorb these influences, not pastiche them, allowing them to come out as something else through the filter of my own individuality. There is often a broad emotional range from exuberance to introversion, darkness to technicolour.
How do you work?
Generally quite slowly, searching for a way in to the piece, an idea, a concept. Sometimes the material leads the way, showing its own possibilities.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Lots. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding, Errollyn Wallen, Howard Skempton, Michael Wolters, Ed Bennett, Sean Clancy, Andrew Hamilton, Bach, Trish Clowes, Richard Ayres, Laura Mvula, Schubert, Andrew Toovey, more, more, more….
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To keep going and to help others along the way
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Try and improve the world a little; be serious about what you do, but don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t be an old composer when you’re a young composer; perfection is dull; “success” isn’t everything; don’t lose sight of the magic of music; be generous, kind and help others.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Spending time with my family, today I walked in the woods with my wife and son and it was the most beautiful autumn day.
What is your present state of mind?
I’d say it’s in a pretty good state, but in need of sleep (my little boy was awake most of last night….)
*The title track on the new CD ‘Elsewhereness’ was commissioned for the launch concert of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
Joe Cutler : ‘Elsewhereness’. Released 19th October 2018. NMC Recordings / NMC D246
Launch concert for ‘Elsewhereness’ at Birmingham Royal Conservatoire on 16th November 2018
Clara Schumann Festival at St John’s Smith Square 22-24 February 2019
Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of her birth
On Fri 22 Feb – Sun 24 Feb 2019, St John’s Smith Square celebrates the 200th anniversary year of Clara Schumann’s birth. Born in Leipzig in 1819, Clara Schumann is remembered nowadays as the wife of Robert Schumann and close friend of Johannes Brahms. This three-day festival hopes to shed some light on the various facets of Clara’s life – her role as an international pianist, a mother, friend, and composer. Although a significant portion of her compositions are for solo piano, Clara did write 29 Lieder, most of which are not featured often enough in recital programmes.
On this note, the Clara Schumann Festival opens with a very rare opportunity to hear Clara’s complete published songs, 29 settings in total. Renowned Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser shares the programme with the rising English tenor Alessandro Fisher (Winner of 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Competion and BBC New Generation Artist), accompanied by Eugene Asti who recorded The Songs of Clara Schumann on the Hyperion label.
Continuing the Festival’s particular focus on Lieder, Saturday 23 Feb 2019 begins with a Lieder Masterclass led by Eugene Asti. St John’s Smith Square are delighted to welcome three emerging singer-pianist duos from Oxford Lieder Young Artists, each of whom will explore a work by Clara Schumann plus another piece associated with her.
In their early years of marriage, Robert and Clara devoted considerable time to the study of fugue and counterpoint, notably Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier which Robert referred to as his “daily bread”. Suitably titled “The Old Masters” (a term used by Clara to refer to the likes of Bach and Handel), Saturday’s afternoon recital juxtaposes Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp BWV848 (a staple piece from Clara’s recital repertoire) with three of Clara’s own works from 1845, all performed by Gamal Khamis (Winner of the accompaniment prizes at the 2017 Royal Overseas League and Ferrier Awards competitions). The concert ends with another piece that nods towards the Baroque – Brahms’ Handel Variations Op. 24 (dedicated to Clara), performed by Mishka Rushdie Momen whom Imogen Cooper has hailed as “a really compelling talent”, garnering high praise for her “rare ability to communicate the essential meaning of whatever she plays” (Richard Goode).
The second day of the Clara Schumann Festival concludes with familiar numbers from Robert’s Myrthen, which he presented to Clara as a gift on their wedding day, and some Rückert settings from Clara and Robert’s joint opus. Entitled “Clara & Robert”, this programme also includes Clara’s early Variations a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20. The second half of this concert follows a similar vein; Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte Op. 98, with its longing for a distant loved one, precedes Robert’s Fantasy in C which includes a brief quotation from the Beethoven cycle, undoubtedly penned with Clara in mind.
Considered one of her best works, Clara’s Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 (her only piano trio) opens the last day of the festival. This one-hour recital, “Clara & Brahms”, pairs Clara’s lyrical trio with one of her personal favourites – Brahms’ dramatic and turbulent Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101. Both works will be performed by the Busch Trio (Winner of 2012 Royal Overseas League Competition, and Prize Winner at the 2013 International Schumann Chamber Music Award), of whom The Times wrote: “what impressed most was the group’s effortless musicianship and unity of thought and attack. The threesome even seemed to be breathing in synch.”
Felix Mendelssohn and his close friendship with the Schumanns (and Brahms) is celebrated in “The Mendelssohn Connection” on Sun 24 Feb 2019 3.30pm. The tight-knit nature of this friendship group is reflected by the opening works – 2 Brahms settings of poetry by Felix Schumann (son of Clara and Robert, who they named after Felix Mendelssohn). The rest of the programme consists solely of works by Felix Mendelssohn – a selection of Lieder; his Lieder ohne Worte Book 5 Op. 62 for solo piano (dedicated to Clara), with its well-known Ein Frühlingslied; and, to conclude, the stunning Piano Four Hands in A MWV T 4 ‘Allegro Brilliant’ Op. 92, which Clara and Felix played together in Leipzig.
The final concert begins with two pieces as a memento of her friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim: firstly, Clara’s own 3 Romances, one of her more frequently performed works nowadays; and secondly, the F-A-E Sonata which the composers dedicated to Joseph. This piece was first played through at a friendly get together by Clara and Joseph at Clara’s home. Both works will be performed by members of the Busch Trio. The Clara Schumann Festival ends with Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, written towards the end of his life. The songs were first played to a group of close friends at a private gathering immediately after Clara’s funeral. After the cycle was published, Brahms sent a copy to Clara’s daughter Marie Schumann. Accompanying the score was a letter in which Brahms wrote: “…You will not be able to play through these songs just now because the words would be too affecting. But I beg you to regard them… as a true memorial to your beloved mother.” Brahms passed away 11 months after Clara.
Beverley Vong, Festival Curator said:
“Many will recognise Clara Schumann as the wife of Robert Schumann. However, in reality, she seems to have been so much more: not only did she juggle an international solo career with being a mother of eight (a feat in itself), Clara inspired a huge amount of music and this short festival features only a fraction of it. Selections of Clara’s own output are featured alongside works by household names to whom she was muse, friend, and colleague. In an age when women endured endless inequalities, Clara Schumann displayed remarkable resilience, determination, and devotion to music.”
Festival Pass £45
Concert ticket: £18 (£15), YF
Masterclass ticket: £10
(Source: press release)
Guest post by Elaine Chew
As a child, having supra-ventricular tachycardia meant that, due to extra electrical pathways in my heart, a simple trigger such as an early heartbeat could double my heart rate at any time. The early beat is often hard to feel, but the delayed beat that follows was unmistakeable—a big thump! that would jump start the doppio movimento. (For an example of doppio movimento, Professor John Rink has kindly suggested the beginning of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35; see a performance by Ivo Pogerelich.) Another thump would end the tachycardia episode as abruptly as it began, which was as likely to be three seconds, thirty minutes, or three hours later.
Doubling the heart rate is fine and good when one is at rest, say seated and reading; twice 60 beats per minute (bpm) would only be 120 bpm, still within a normal range. But rate doubling can be problematic when exercising, like when swimming, where doubling the heart rate of 120 bpm results in a breathless 240 beats per minute and seeing stars if standing upright, the only recourse at this point being lying horizontal and waiting for the episode to pass.
This non-deadly but troublesome arrhythmia was cured through a minimally invasive procedure called radio frequency ablation, which burns the dysfunctional tissue in the heart. The scar tissue that forms can no longer conduct electricity, and the circuit is thus broken. For a long time afterwards, every skipped heartbeat would still cause my muscles to tense and my breathing to pause in anticipation of tachycardia that never materialised, making me realise how unconsciously arrhythmia had impacted my life. I was thus blissfully arrhythmia free until atrial fibrillation hit.
The rhythms of tachycardia were rapid and regular, but atrial fibrillation was irregular in both musical rhythm and pacing. It is also associated with increased risks of mortality if allowed to progress unchecked. My heart started making its own funky rhythms like the following:
which was meticulously transcribed from the inter-beat intervals in the electrocardiogram (ECG) recording from a Holter monitor:
This is not unlike the kinds of rhythms musicians are used to reading. A minor adjustment to the well-known Siciliano, the middle movement from the Flute Sonata in E-flat major (BWV 1031) by J. S. Bach, readily produces an exact fit to the transcribed rhythm:
￼See the video with audio playback of the modified Bach Siciliano. Readers interested in the gnarly details of the transcription process and its precision can refer to this Music & Science article on notating temporal deviations in music and arrhythmia.
AF is a fast growing global epidemic; statistics show that the condition afflicts over two million people in the UK alone. The inefficient blood flow through the heart in AF increases the risk of blood clots that can lead to stroke. Many people with AF are unaware that they have the condition, but I was amongst those doctors euphemistically describe as very symptomatic. Another ablation procedure—this time with freezing balloons (cryo-ablation)—created barriers in my heart, rings of scar tissue around the pulmonary veins, to contain the errant electrical activity, thus curing the condition.
When the consultant cardiologist came by the ward to ask if I had any questions, I asked for ECG data that I could use for musical analysis and experimentation. This has led to a number of computational projects, mostly scientific in nature, but the first of these was a growing set of piano pieces called the Arrhythmia Suite. With the help of three research partners at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the inter-beat durations were extracted from the ECG traces and the rhythms carefully transcribed. I then cannibalised existing music to make collage pieces based on these rhythms. See the video on the making of the Arrhythmia Suite. When performed, the pieces make visceral the rhythmic experience of arrhythmia.
On Tuesday, 20 November 2018, at 1pm, I will perform these pieces in Heart & Music at the Octagon (Queen’s Building, 327 Mile End Road, London E1 4NS) at Queen Mary University of London, as part of the Being Human Festival. The concert programme will feature music made from stolen rhythms, including the ones taken from ECG traces of cardiac arrhythmias. Professor Pier Lambiase, the consultant cardiologist who led the clinical team on both ablation procedures, will give a short introduction to arrhythmia research at the Barts Heart Centre before the performance. Admissions to Heart & Music, which kicks off the all-day Keyboard Evolutions event is free, but booking is recommended.
Other pieces on the recital programme include Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Haydn’s Stolen Rhythm (2009), in which the composer assigns new pitches to the third movement (Finale) of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat, Hob XVI:45, keeping intact Haydn’s original rhythms; Practicing Haydn (2013) is a transcription of my sight-reading of the same Haydn sonata movement complete with hesitations and repetitions—this was a collaboration with composer Peter Child and conceptual artist Lina Viste Grønli that premiered at the grand opening of the Kunsthall Stavanger; Intermezzo (2015) was written by Jonathan Berger for pianist Pedja Muzijevic’s Haydn Dialogues; and, compositions based on J. S. Bach’s A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena and Kabelevsky’s 30 and 24 Pieces for Children (2016) were created by a computer programme called MorpheuS, written by Dorien Herremans as part of her Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship in my lab.
Following the concert, at 2:30pm, an interactive workshop will enable free-form Q&A with Profs. Lambiase, Peter Taggart, and myself on the preceding presentations as well as our ongoing study on cardiac response to live music performance. Abnormal heart rhythms can often be linked to strong emotions or mental stress. Because music is a powerful idiom through which to evoke strong emotions, this study uses music to induce mild tension in patient volunteers with biventricular pacemakers or ICDs to better understand the connections between emotion response and heart rhythms.
Elaine Chew is Professor of Digital Media at Queen Mary University of London, where she is affiliated with the Centre for Digital Music. She is recent recipient of a European Research Council Advanced Grant for the project COSMOS: Computational Shaping and Modeling of Musical Structures, which will start in January 2019. COSMOS aims to study musical structures as they are created in performance and in recordings of cardiac arrhythmias.
About COSMOS — https://erc-adg-cosmos.blogspot.com
About Elaine’s research — https://elainechew-research.blogspot.com
About Elaine’s piano activities — https://elainechew-piano.blogspot.com
About the Music, Performance and Expressivity lab — https://mupae.blogspot.com
On April 20, 1993, sixteen-year-old Cassie watches her world burn to the ground. A week later—far from Waco, TX and the Branch Davidean fire that claimed her family, friends, savior, and the only life she had ever known—Cassie enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality.
Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her. And only through Bach’s music can she dare to feel the loss of her parents.
When US authorities raided cult-leader David Khoresh’s compound in February 1993, it led to 10 deaths and a 51-day standoff that ended when a fire killed more than 70 men, women, and children. Those who survived Waco were forced to confront the dark things Khoresh did: narcissistic and abusive, he was deeply controlling yet charismatic and personable.
This well-crafted and sensitively-written novel by American pianist Rhonda Rizzo does not shy away from presenting Khoresh and his cult in unsentimental terms, but rather than offer long descriptions, small disturbing details are slipped into the narrative in the form of flashbacks by Cassie, the protagonist, as she tries to come to terms what has happened to her and her family, and comprehend her parents’ life choices. The complex story of Cassie’s struggle to process the trauma of Waco and resulting PTSD, and the extraordinarily closed world of a religious cult, is told in unsentimental, vividly realistic terms, and Rhonda Rizzo’s own musical background brings an authenticity and authority to the descriptions of the music, including the experience of studying and performing music, the hot house, competitive atmosphere of music college, and the special pleasures (and difficulties) of playing with other musicians.
This is as much a coming-of-age novel as a book about recovery and renewal, and Cassie’s naive, tentative entry into a normal teenage girl’s life of fashion, boys and alcohol is presented in bold, believable terms: her relationships are not always straightforward and her attempts to fit in, despite her unusual background, are familiar to anyone who has felt like an outsider.
In one of those serendipitous encounters which sometimes happen via my blog, the author contacted me out of the blue to ask if I would review her book. I’m so glad I agreed, as I found The Waco Variations a real page-turner, and, ultimately, a wonderful celebration of the restorative powers of music. The novel offers a universal message – that music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more…..
This musical and theatrical collaboration between multi-award-winning actress Dame Patricia Routledge and international concert pianist Piers Lane tells the extraordinary, inspiring story of Myra Hess and her famous wartime National Gallery concerts.
Compiled from her press and radio interviews during World War II by Myra’s great-nephew, composer Nigel Hess, ‘Admission: One Shilling’ is Myra in her own words: redoubtable, courageous and inspiring. This acclaimed show has toured for almost a decade yet these 17 November performances at Bishopsgate Institute will mark the first occasion that the pieces are played on Dame Myra Hess’s very own Steinway & Sons piano.
Through spoken word performance taken from letters, books and interviews given by Myra, interspersed with short piano pieces by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven and JS Bach, hear, how the ‘great adventure’ of these lunchtime concerts began, and how they continued while bombs rained down on London.
It will be a powerful and poignant experience, for both Piers and myself, to be telling the story, through words and music, of Dame Myra Hess’s unique and inspired contribution to the nation, during the anxious years of the Second World War. That our performance is to take place at the Bishopsgate Institute in the company of one of the instruments Dame Myra Hess actually played will, I am sure, make for a significant experience for all of us.
– Dame Patricia Routledge
I am delighted that ‘Admission: One Shilling’, a piece about my great-aunt Dame Myra Hess is being performed at Bishopsgate Institute. These performances will be particularly special as Piers Lane will be playing on the piano given to Myra by Steinway which has been at the Institute for several years and has recently been extensively refurbished in Steinway’s Hamburg workshop. To hear Myra’s own piano telling her own story in this way will be an unique experience, both for her family and, I am sure, for the audience as well
– Nigel Hess
Admission: One Shilling
Sat 17 November | 14.00 & 19.00
Price: £21, no concessions
Address: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London. EC2M 4QH
Photo: ©Gussie Welch