Guest post by Simon Danell

Memorizing has, for years, been very fascinating to me. I think that’s partly due to the fact that it was such a struggle for me in the beginning, whereas now it seems like a very natural thing to do. It’s something most of us haven’t really been taught, but expected to figure out by ourselves – if we don’t learn the piece by heart, we’re usually just told to practice more.

I find it interesting how such a crucial part is just left for fate do decide.

When starting to play piano, memorizing is usually not such a big problem. The songs or pieces are short enough to learn just by playing them through a couple of times per day. But once we enter even slightly more advanced repertoire, that way of learning is suddenly of no use, and we tend to find ourselves fiddling around on the keys with an increased heart rate, and with the words “Oh, sh*t” repeating in our heads.

I was no different. I easily came through the harmonically simple and motorically repetitive pieces without any difficulty, and putting my head on auto pilot was my idea of a perfect concert – I’d get up on stage, bow, sit down and start to play. Things would then turn black, and I would come out of the darkness a few minutes later once the last note is played. “How did it go? Oh, just amazing, I didn’t even have to think!” Then it came….. I went up on stage, bowed, sat down and things turned black. “But what was that note again?“, and it all changed. I came out of the darkness, but I wasn’t even half -way through the piece. Desperately I tried to find the right notes to play, my heart rate increased and “Oh, sh*t!” was on repeat in my mind.

Luckily, it was on a sort of bad piano, and the audience was a bunch of classmates who just wanted to go home. They were probably coughing and yawning a lot, so it was surely because of that, and nothing I had done wrong. All I had to do was to practice some more and just focus a bit more next time.

The next concert came – I went up, bowed, sat down.. all just routine by now. The only difference was that this time, I’d be Focused! “Focus, focus focus focus… fo.. f…. oh, sh*t!

These slips went on. I could play the music perfectly at home, and almost as good in the lesson room, but once on stage, it all just fell apart. I went on to practice 8-10 hours per day, but still with the same result in concert.

I got some tricks from my teacher, like “Think of the harmonies” or “Practice more slowly, and with separate hands!“, but that rarely made any actual difference.

The real difference came when I started studying at actual music school, when I was about 18, where other students also had to practice. The rooms quite quickly became full, and there was a lot of time spent just waiting. As the pieces had to be learned anyway, I started by just reading the score, and tried to imagine what it looked like. I read a line, or a phrase, closed my eyes, and tried to play it in my head. Not only was I unable to remember the notes, I barely remembered what it sounded like! It was such an epiphany that I knew it would change my musical life. I finally started thinking about practicing. How would I ever be able to play anything if I had no idea what I was actually playing? From then on I started practicing away from the instruments at least an hour every day. I tried to not allow myself to practice at a piano before I had a very clear idea in my mind of how it was going to sound once I started playing.

It became clear to me that the motoric memory (or muscle memory, as some call it), the thing I had used for so long, was actually very unsafe and unstable. I found that the other senses have an impact on our memory too – the aural and visual, and the intellectual part – and how they, unlike the motoric memory, really needed to be worked on properly and won’t just come by themselves.

I started analyzing my performances, and what I was thinking during my playing. As it turned out, I was thinking almost exactly the same things when I was performing as when I was practicing, and once the muscle memory turned off, I had no safety-net since I didn’t make one when I was practicing. In some aspects, practicing shouldn’t really be that different from performing.

Once I started practicing everything I had to know on the stage, all the memory slips disappeared almost over night. I finally realized not only to focus, but on what I should focus. If I noticed that my mind was drifting on a certain spot, I practiced to know what to think on that spot (the notes, the character, to sing the melody…) to train myself to think about the same thing during the performance. Or if I noticed that I worried about remembering the notes in a certain phrase, I practiced every voice carefully in my mind, both the notes and the music, before I played them, and followed each of them very attentively when I played. Then I would have created a safety net, in case I would need it in public.

I practiced very attentively like this for some time, to make sure I would cover the full piece – I remember once when I was performing the Symphonic Etudes by Schumann and, with full focus, was able to follow everything, down to pretty much every single note – but then got into the next problem….

You. Can’t. Make. Music. If. It. Never. Ever. Flows. … Which is what happens if you think on a note-to-note basis.

It was an obvious improvement from being neither detailed nor attentive, but it was a few steps too far. I tried to alternate between being in constant control, with often playing through to put everything in a certain perspective.

Now I feel that I can be both while performing. If I feel I am under control, I can let go and let the music flow by itself, and can just as easily go back to regain my focus if it’s starting to fall apart.

This article first appeared on the website of pianist Simon Danell.

Diehard classical music fans look away now – this futuristic bluetooth speaker is not for you. Designed to appeal to teens, SciFi fans and lovers of films like Star Wars and War of the Worlds, the Zoeao ‘Gravastar’ bluetooth speaker prides itself on its unusual design and a deep punchy bass sound.

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It may look as if it’s about to scurry across the room like a metallic robot spider, but the Gravastar is perfectly benign and very easy to use. Once I’d paired it with my iPhone (no need to presss the bluetooth button for very long to achieve this), a message from the device confirmed pairing had taken place and I was away with a selection of music ranging from late Brahms piano music to Chick Corea, a pianist friend’s own Indian-inspired compositions, and the debut album by experimental electronic 1990s group Enigma, which is where the speaker really came into its own, filling the room with sound, clean and resonant. And yes, the bass is impressive.

Unaccompanied Bach Cello Suites (Yo Yo Ma’s recent recording) also fared pretty well – the device’s rich bass sound suits the warm voice of the cello, but you need the volume turned down to avoid hiss. The volume control on the device is a simple swipe of the finger across its domed head – or adjust it via your smartphone.  My Reggae mix came across particularly well via the Gravastar, and I also relived my 50th birthday party with this playlist. This device is definitely best suited to jazz, pop and rock music; the serious classical music afficionado is not necessarily going to find the breadth or detail of sound from the Gravastar.

Technical info:

  • shock-absorbent zinc alloy shell houses a 20W speaker
  • tripod design gives stability so that bluetooth connection and playback quality is not compromised, even at maximum power/sound output
  • two Gravastar devices can be paired for an even bigger surround sound
  • Touch-sensitive volume control
  • Futuristic ambient lighting effects
  • TWS Bluetooth V5.0 technology
  • 30-hour battery life
  • Comes with charging cable and connector cable for non-wireless playback
  • RRP $129 (launch price)

More information

 

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Listening to a concert of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto at the Menton Festival in the ‘70s. It really was a shock and it provided the turning point. Pursuing a career in music came about due to a number of circumstances.  As I finished secondary school in 1989, the Russians decided to enter Afghanistan, which strangely affected me deeply.  Dreading a looming third world war, I decided to choose what I loved the most in life: music!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I would love to say Gustav Leonhardt or John Eliot Gardiner… but actually I am not someone to hero worship or adore gods. The influences on me are multiple: add to the two names above –  Harnoncourt, Mitropoulos, Christie and Gruberova.

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

Winning the international harpsichord competition in Bruges in 1983… this was very unlikely, considering the programme and how severe the jury was. My other greatest challenge as a conductor came last year conducting Gounod’s Faust with forces I have never had before in répertoire totally new to me and my ensemble Les Talens Lyriques… but I loved it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

In terms of pure prestige and distinction –  definitely Mitridate by Mozart with a flashy label and a flashy cast: Bartoli, Florez, Dessay, Piau etc.  In terms of my own personal conviction, Les Nations by Couperin, because he is the composer who speaks most directly to my heart and because the recording just released a few months ago is 99% what I dreamt it would be – refined in spirit and execution.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Hmmm! Difficult question… let’s be general and answer opera. I love giving life to human drama. Music, especially sung, can bring an extraordinary intensity to a text. That’s what I love most.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I try to balance my career between solo harpsichord, chamber music (because I love to play with my own ensemble), opera for the reasosn above and possibly some sacred music for my soul

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Not really. I am of course very sensitive to acoustics. Wigmore hall in London, Victoria Hall in Geneva, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or even the brand new Paris Philharmonie are quite inspiring.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Krystian Zimerman, Isabelle Faust, Christian Gerhaher. Wonderful artists. Very inspiring and very honest (I hate the new tendency of showing off!)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Bach D minor harpsichord concerto in 1985 during the Bach anniversary with La Petite Bande, the baroque orchestra I loved most at that point. I was 24 and this was a dream!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Approach your ideal of sound as close as possible and coax the music you perform with all your soul and body. When it happens, say 80-85%, it’s a big success – people like it, or not!

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

Be honest, serve music with devotion, ignore your ego and remain curious, remain the child you were once. This pure attitude is perhaps what creates a true emotion for oneself and for other people through music

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

In front of my orchestra still performing and making people as happy as I can.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Harmony and serenity

What is your most treasured possession?

Love

What is your present state of mind?

Resigned and hoping for better!

Christophe Rousset is the renowned harpsichordist, conductor and founder of the baroque ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, who return to the Wigmore Hall on 21st February in a Venetian programme of music by Monteverdi, during a break from performances of La Divisione del Mondo by the little-known Venetian composer Legrenzi  in Strasbourg.   His latest recordings are Couperin’s Les Nations and Couperin & Moi, both on Aparte.  His next disc of keyboard music by Frescobaldi will be released at the end of March.


Christophe Rousset is a musician and conductor inspired by a passion for opera and the rediscovery of the European musical heritage.

His studies (harpsichord) with Huguette Dreyfus at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, then with Bob van Asperen at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (winning the coveted First Prize in the Seventh Bruges International Harpsichord Competition at the age of twenty-two), followed by the creation of his own ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, in 1991, have enabled Christophe Rousset to obtain a perfect grasp of the richness and diversity of the Baroque, Classical and pre-Romantic repertoires.

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(Picture: Ignacio Barrios Martinez)

 

Guest post by Jennifer Mackerras

Even as news broke of Andy Murray’s imminent departure from men’s tennis, another article in the Guardian caught my eye: a piece on Roger Federer[1]. Though not a massive tennis fan, I’ve come to admire Federer and frequently use him as an example of stunningly graceful movement in my Alexander Technique classes. But what can we as musicians learn from Federer? What can we take from his approach to tennis and apply to our own endeavours?

Balance and efficiency of movement

Journalists have been remarking on the beauty of Federer’s play since early in his career – David Foster Wallace’s seminal article on Federer ‘as Religious Experience’ was written in 2006 and still feels current. Here is Wallace on Federer:

Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to… His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game … All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.”[2]

What do I as an Alexander Technique teacher like about watching Federer? If you look at photos of him, or watch him play on TV, he never seems off balance. There is an efficiency of movement – he doesn’t use more energy than necessary, and he rarely seems to place muscular effort into anything that would detract from his shot. Even at extreme levels of exertion one never feels that his energies are being misdirected or overdone. This is Federer himself on his style of play:

maybe it’s also the way I play tennis, smoother than the other guys. It maybe looks that way [but] I work extremely hard in the matches as well. It just doesn’t come across so much.”[3]

I think this is directly transferrable to music. As we play, we could make it a guiding principle to make our physical movements suitable to the task at hand – neither too much, nor poorly directed. I’m not suggesting that we try to limit our movement or our energies; rather that, like Federer, if the situation demands exertion and exuberance, that we fulfil those demands in the service of our musical goals. I would love to feel at the end of a recital that I had carried out what was necessary to make the music speak, and no extra!

Rhythm, routine, and fun

Federer has an unchanging routine to determine when he changes his racquets during the match, and a little ritual set up with the ball boys and girls when the new one is unwrapped. He is known to be meticulous about taking off his jacket before the match and putting it over the back of his chair, smoothing away any creases. These things may give us aesthetic pleasure as spectators, but why might he do them? One answer might be, ‘control of environment’. By having a set plan over when he changes racquet (and how it is done) he doesn’t need to think about it, leaving him more mental space (working memory) to devote to thinking about the game.

But he also likes to allow himself moments of creativity and fun. Journalist Tim Lewis:

it was Mats Wilander, the seven-time grand slam winner from Sweden, who noted that to really understand Roger Federer you have to watch him between the points. Wilander especially enjoys how Federer returns a ball to the ball boys after a missed first serve or the end of the rally. It’s never a simple, utilitarian interaction: instead, he’ll curate a viciously kinking drop shot that bounces into their hands or a razored slice that makes a satisfying thwock into the canvas behind the court.” [4]

The idea of creating routines and patterns of behaviour is a sensible one, as it can help free up the mind before performing and may also have a beneficial effect against stage fright. It does this by removing the necessity of the performer having to use vital mental energy deciding how to prepare themselves, their instrument and music for the performance; it also reduces the risk of forgetting something, thereby lowering the general ‘irritability’ of the performer’s systems.

I also like, though, the inclusion of creativity and fun within Federer’s routine structure. Perhaps some playfulness over warming up, or while tuning between movements/pieces may help to keep a sense of freshness and presence? I’ll leave it up to you to work out how adding some creativity might work for you!

Follow-through

A friend on Twitter remarked that one of the noticeable elements of Federer’s play is his follow-through – it is graceful and flowing, and very much part of his shot. This is possibly where Federer most neatly exemplifies a key Alexander Technique principle, which I and some of my colleagues label ‘additive thinking’.[5]

FM Alexander wanted us to reason out strategies (routes of travel, or protocols) for each activity we undertake. But so often it becomes easy to look at the elements of the protocol one has designed and view them as a kind of checklist. The tennis checklist, simplified hugely, might read:

  • pull racquet back
  • hit ball
  • follow through

But if one were to use these three steps in practice as a checklist, one would end up with a very jerky and unconnected set of movements – quite the opposite of the easy and ‘holistic’ quality we are trying to attain. What FM Alexander wanted instead, and what Federer does brilliantly, is for the player to think of each thing additively at all moments of the shot. In other words, even as one is preparing for the shot, one is also thinking of the follow-through, and vice versa. This ensures that every element of the protocol is retained in mind as the protocol is followed. And what Federer also does brilliantly is to use the follow-through from one shot as the preparatory conditions for the next shot.

How would this function in music? A pianist, for example, would not think of single notes individually, but rather think about each note and each finger movement as encompassing each note in the phrase. The way each note ends is the preparatory state for the next note (or rest, or silence).

Self-belief

Federer exhibits a solid belief in his own abilities; he believes that he can win. And this belief isn’t only visible while he’s winning. Journalist Tim Lewis notes that this belief stuck with him even in the period where he was losing matches and falling down the rankings:

When he spoke about the brick walls he was coming up against, Federer’s response was stoic, hubristic: he was playing well, he’d tell us, he could beat any player on his day. There was something deluded about his obstinacy, and it made me both desperately want him to change, but also wish that he would stay the same.” [6]

Federer, like other great sportspeople, is prepared to investigate change: he did change his preferred racquet size. But his belief in his training and ability is paramount:

The core difference between Federer and his rivals is his unshakeable belief in his talent, to trust his genius.

“I’ve always believed I can play tennis when I don’t train so much,” he said. “That’s been maybe one thing, the confidence I have in my game, even if I don’t play so much, where I still feel I can come up to a good level. Maybe that takes away some pressure.” “[7]

Because he knows that he has trained intelligently and consistently over decades, Federer is able to rest confidently on the knowledge that he has attained a level of proficiency in the game that will carry him to success. Equally, he knows that if he continues to train intelligently, he will be able to do fewer hours of physical work than many of his competitors, protecting him from injury while still preparing him for tournaments.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from this as musicians. As Noa Kageyama pointed out in his seminal blog post [8], the number of hours one spends in a practice room aren’t the key to success – intelligent practice is a far greater predictive of success. So we all need to do the things we’ve been told are sensible: mental practice, interleaving, slow practice, and so on. If we ‘work smart’, we design our success. We pay attention to the process, and then have faith that it will carry us through, because we have designed it with success in mind. Or as FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends must be a genuine trust…”[8]

Balance, routine, follow-through, belief. Which one will you start working on today?


Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com


[1] Kevin Mitchell, ‘Roger Federer: Methuselah of sport still has unshakeable belief in his talent’, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/roger-federer-methusalah-of-sport-still-has-unshakeable-belief-in-his-talent, accessed 14 January 2019.

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html, accessed 15 January 2019.

[3] Roger Federer quoted in Mitchell, op.cit.

[4] Tim Lewis, ‘The Pleasure (And Pain) Of Watching Roger Federer, The Greatest Tennis Player Ever’, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/a22019668/the-pleasure-and-pain-of-watching-roger-federer-the-greatest-tennis-player-ever/, accessed 15 January 2019.

[5] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, pp.41-2.

[6] Lewis, op.cit.

[7] Mitchell, op.cit.

[8] Now Kageyama, ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’, https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/, accessed 16 January 2019.

[9] Alexander, op.cit., p.45.

 

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

I was born in the small town of Kavajë on the Adriatic coast. As a child I felt there was always music around me; there was certainly plenty of singing and dancing around, especially at weddings, which were taken very seriously in Albania! They would last for something like a whole week! Starting with small gatherings of family members on a Monday, the music would get louder, as if with a crescendo, reaching a climax with professional folk musicians on Friday and Saturday – and everyone was invited! I must have been about five years old when my uncle (the youngest child in my father’s family) got married, and I remember dancing during the whole week! I also remember that as a child, I would use my spoon and fork as ‘drum-sticks’ at the dinner table, and my mother thought that my ‘drumming’ was a ‘signal’ to her that I was hungry!

These qualities, apparently, didn’t go unnoticed: it was my uncle (he played clarinet in the town’s big-band and, of course, played quite a bit of folk music and sang himself), who ‘alerted’ my parents that I must be sent to a music school – and that is what happened. I enrolled in a professional music school in the neighbouring city of Durrës when I was 14 years of age, studying oboe, accordion, harmony & counterpoint, and composing bits and pieces. Since then, music has been a way of life for me!

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

As a teenager I liked going to the cinema, and the films I liked I watched them more than once! I would learn by heart stretches of dialogues, especially those that made me laugh, and would recite them out-loud at home! But something that has stuck in my memory, and I remember this because I’ve never forgotten it, is that in the main hall of the cinema there was a striking portrait of a very famous actor, Aleksandër Moisiu, whose origin is from my home town. Looking at Moisiu’s portrait and seeing his captivating pictures in various roles (he played, among others, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Faust) was very inspiring, as if he was saying to me ‘you cannot imagine how beautiful the world of art is!’

Moisiu settled in Vienna in his 20s, and began an international career which took him all over Europe and in the Americas in the first half of the 20th Century. He had a particularly musical and resonant voice. I later discovered that Arnold Schoenberg knew Moisiu and mentions him in his correspondence; whereas Alban Berg saw Moisiu playing Fedya in Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse, and in a letter to his wife in September 1917 described him simply as ‘magnificent’!

After the music school in Durrës, I enrolled in the State Conservatory of Music in the capital Tirana, studying composition. It was very tough to get a place in the conservatoire in those days: the year I got in, there were only four places in composition; for the whole country, that is, which is the same size as Wales!

Tonin Harapi, my composition teacher who had studied at Moscow Conservatoire, was a wonderful human being with a sharp sense of humour. He didn’t want his students to write the music that he wrote, so he ‘let me free’ to pursue my own interests – as free as one could be in a Stalinist regime where Stravinsky, among others, was in the government’s bad books and was banned completely. But Debussy, Prokofiev and some Bartok (not the ‘harsh’ works of the middle period) were allowed, so I could listen to them, and managed to hear the ‘Firebird’ secretly! It was a strange feeling of awe and apprehension, created by the raw quality of the music of Firebird, and the fact that it was banned! I also liked the music of Feim Ibrahimi, who I felt was at the sharp end of the Albanian music of the time. I seem to have had an appetite for ‘spicy’ sounds in those days!

I came to England when I was 33, and started all over again – da capo! During my postgraduate studies for a PhD in composition at York University, I studied with David Blake who introduced me to the Second Viennese School, and I immersed myself into the music that was banned in my native country. Bartok and Stravinsky aside, Berio, Boulez, Birtwistle, Xenakis, Lutoslawski et al. have all had their input during my study years at York. But it was with the music of Ligeti and Kurtag that I felt I discovered something very special, which was more than an inspiration to me.

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

I came to England in May 1991, and my English was just two months old! To begin with I spoke French, but my good friends in North Yorkshire gave me only two weeks to speak French; after that, they said, ‘it’s English only; OK?’

And I said… ‘ça va!’

I couldn’t afford to get lessons in English, so I just immersed myself in reading, and ‘invented’ a rule for myself: if I encountered an unknown word (and there were quite a few of them!) three times, I would look it up in the dictionary and write it down. I used an English – Italian dictionary that I had brought with me from Albania; it was easier for me to remember the words from Italian, because quite a few of them had the same root. After six months I was able to give a seminar presentation at York, but the most important ‘new language’ for me was ‘the other one’ – the musical language – which took a little bit longer!

There were many ‘challenges’ for me during this time, which I will not bore you with here, but I will mention one: I applied to settle in this country as a creative artist, but in order to get this status I had to wait for nearly three years; and during this time my father died! Anyone who doesn’t go to one’s father’s funeral must have a very strong reason, and my reason was that I … didn’t know my father had died. My mother had decided not to tell me (and advised all relatives to respect this), because she knew that if I had to leave the country whilst my application was under consideration by the Home Office, I wouldn’t be able to return; and she knew how much it meant to me studying at a western university.

But this is all water under the bridge now; my frustration at the moment is that it’s so difficult to get my orchestral works done in this country. My Concerto for Orchestra, which was awarded the Lutoslawski Prize in 2013, chosen among 160 anonymous submissions from 37 countries, is yet to receive its UK premiere! This is frustrating, especially as I would like to write more works for orchestra, for I feel that I have a lot more to say with orchestral sounds. I recently read Primo Levi’s novel entitled: ‘If Not Now When’.

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

The joy of a commission for a composer is not only knowing beforehand that a new piece is about to start its life, but you also know the musicians who are going to bring this to fruition. My latest piece was written for six musicians of Klangforum Wien. When I first heard Klangforum ensemble live in a concert conducted by Bas Wiegers at HCMF a few years ago, my jaw dropped! So, I was over the moon when was asked to write a new work for them, employing the same instrumentation as Boulez’s Derive I, which was also in the programme. Most importantly, the musical idea for this new piece is closely linked to the ‘composition’ of the ensemble itself –hence the title Klang Inventions! The structure of the new work was then based on what I’ve called ‘family resemblances’, and various ‘instrumental alliances’ within this ensemble. I felt uninhibited when composing this piece, and wrote challengingly for the ensemble as whole, giving each player a meaningful role to play. There are quite a few notes in it, and they played them all!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians?

Knowing who you are writing for is very important to me. My latest String Quartet (No 5), commissioned by the HCMF and first performed in 2015, was written specifically for Quatuor Diotima. Having worked with them for some 10 years, one cannot fail to notice their individual and sensitive approach to sound and colour, and their huge range of expression. I have tried to embody these idiosyncratic Diotima qualities in both string quartets I have dedicated to them. And I am so pleased that, thanks to an award by the PRSF Composers Fund in 2018, both quartets (Nos 4 & 5) and other works (a piano quintet and solo works performed by Joseph Houston, including a new piece written for him), will be recorded later this year for a new CD with the Swedish label BIS Records to be released in 2020 – so watch this space!

Of which works are you most proud?

This is a tough one! There is a saying in the Albanian language: ‘All fingers of one’s hand hurt the same!’ In a composer’s career there are, of course, some works whose significance is greater than others, in that they ‘announce’ stylistic or idiomatic approaches that have an impact on future works and in that sense are considered as milestones in the composer’s oeuvre. But I always feel proudest with my latest works – and there have been a handful of them in the last three years: The Scream for String orchestra based on the iconic painting by Edvard Munch received its world premiere in 2017 performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. The BBC producer said to me after the dress rehearsal: ‘I can see the picture here.’ – this was certainly music to my ears!

Other works include, ENgREnage for Violin & Piano written for Peter Sheppard-Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick, Klang Inventions written for and dedicated to Klangforum Wien, L’image oubliée d’après Debussy, written for James Willshire in response to a commission by the Late Music Series in York to commemorate the centenary of Debussy’s death, and La Leggiadra Luna for mixed choir a cappella, which received its world premiere by the 24 vocal ensemble at the University of York. I can’t wait to hear La Leggiadra Luna at the 2019 ISCM Festival in May, where it will be performed by the Grammy Award-winning ensemble the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir! This is a setting of a poem by Sappho, translated from ancient Greek into modern Italian by the Nobel Prize-winning Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo.

As is the case with all my works selected for the ISCM Festival over the years (and there have been ten of them), this piece too was submitted directly to the international jury, and it is one of the three works representing the UK at this prestigious festival in May. I am certainly proud of this one, for it concisely sums up what I have been trying to do for some years now, to focus on an idiom where ancient and modern aspects of utterance, musical or otherwise, interact and complement each other.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

This is one of those ‘one million-dollar questions’!

It’s difficult to describe with words what can be best expressed with sounds! And this is particularly challenging in the musical climate of our time which is characterised by a pluralistic approach towards style, where one cannot speak of anything like ‘lingua franca’! Having said that, I could mention here that there is often something in my works, be that a gesture or a motivic idea, which the listener can latch onto. I could also say that an important characteristic of my musical language is putting together elements from disparate musical cultures. Often, complex chordal structures or multi-layered textural formats are reduced to just one single note which becomes a kind of ‘atomistic compression’ with a magnetic quality, as it were, around which various colouristic elements orbit freely! This drone-based type of linearity is a salient characteristic of the ancient musical aura of the Balkans, and I’ve been interested in it and the resulting heterophonic textures for some time now. This began in the early 80s when I worked as music director in a remote town in Southern Albania, right at the border with Greece, and the first-hand experience I had there, working with some amazingly virtuoso folk musicians for three years, has had a lasting effect in my own music. It was very interesting to read Ligeti’s comments in an interview with Stefan Niculescu published in the Romanian magazine Revista Muzica in 1993, where he sad that “These types of drones, the origin of long and sustained sound that supports melismatic melodies can be found on a large scale especially in Southern Albania….”

If I could mention just one example, it would be my new work for violin & piano, called ENgREnage, and this idea is not only visible ‘on the tin’, but most importantly, it is, I believe, audible in the music. In this work the middle D is prominent throughout, and it is precisely this D which has the ‘authority of the home-key’ to brings this journey to a close!

How do you work?

I work very hard on every single work (small and large) and every note!

Who are your favourite musicians?

This could be a long answer, but I will be as short as possible! I have written a number of works for the so-called ‘ideal’ player, but I’ve always felt good when I knew who I was writing for. This is very important to me, because the performer is my first listener; and over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity of working with some amazing musicians in this country and on the continent. In the UK, it all began with Peter Sheppard Skaerved and the Kreutzer Quartet. I first made contact with Peter in 2000, and asked him if he would be interested in a new work, which had just been premiered at the ISCM Festival of that year, and he replied in seconds, saying ‘I’m always interested in new works for violin’; and when I asked him whether he wanted to hear the recording, he said: ‘oh no, I’m a violinist’! Since then, our collaboration grew steadily, and I have written a number of works for Peter, and the Kreutzer Quartet has recorded two of my string quartets. Most recently, Peter and Roderick Chadwick have recorded four works for another CD, alongside works written for Christopher Orton, and Joseph Houston. Both are longstanding collaborators: Chris commissioned the recorder piece which received a British Composer Award from BASCA in 2009, whereas Joe has performed a number of my works, including the world premiere of Deux Esquisses, which I composed for his Wigmore Hall debut. This CD is due to be released on Naxos Records any day now!

As well as Quatuor Diotima mentioned above, I have worked with some of the finest ensembles in contemporary music such as Klangforum Wien, Musikfabrik of Koeln, and Copenhagen Sinfonietta; and some wonderful soloists, such as Rohan De Saram and Neil Heyde in London, Lorina Wallaster in Vienna, Florian Vlashi in Spain, Petrit Çeku in Zagreb, Klaidi Sahatçi – leader of the Tonhall Orchestra in Zurich and many others!!

Whilst some of my works are more challenging than others, I have written a number of pieces which can be played equally by professionals and amateurs – I even have pieces included in the ABRSM Syllabus. I’ve recently made several instrumental versions (duos and trios) of a folk song, My Beautiful Morea, which uses an ancient tune, whose origin stems from the Albanian community in Calabria, and enormously enjoyed doing it! This remarkable tune of some 500 years old lends itself to any instrument (almost!), in a variety of combinations! There is also a vocal version performed by the 24 vocal ensemble of York University. The newest version (Violin, Cello & Guitar) will be premiered very soon!

An important part of my output is Soliloquy Cycle – a series of solo works for various instruments, where a protagonist speaks in different languages, as it were; or to use a metaphor from the theatre, an actor playing different roles, where each character makes a considerable use of its own dialect. I have so far written six works in this series, and there are more to come! Composing for Sarah Watts and Chris Orton was a memorable experience – they booth encouraged me to push the boundaries of the bass clarinet and recorder as much as I could – and I did! I am currently working on a new project with the Paris–based clarinettist, Jérôme Comte – member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Most recently I met Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and heard them live playing solo and together – I hope I will one day be able to work with them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been a number of such experiences over the years! For me all the world premieres are memorable, in that they announce the birth of a ‘new baby’! Here I will mention the premiere of Soliloquy I for Solo Violin, which is certainly memorable; it was given at the 2000 ISCM Festival in Luxembourg. Before submitting the piece to the international jury, I showed it to Ferneyhough during a summer school at California State University, and he looked at it in some detail, and encouraged me to send it to the ISCM Festival. And so I did, and it was selected – Irvine Arditti, among others, was in the jury. In the rehearsal I had with the violinist Vania Lecuit, I asked her how many music stands she was going to use in the concert, and she replied: ‘I don’t know, but I’ve learnt it by heart’!

I was flabbergasted! I know it too well the challenge this piece represents for the performer and it was never my intention that it should be performed by heart, but there you are!

Vania played it from memory at the ISCM Festival – this was a breakthrough for me, my first real success on international level. And there have been a number of works selected at this festival, but here I would like to mention one performance at a local level: in a concert in York last November, where my String Quartet No 5 was performed by the Diotimas, a member of the audience, unknown to me, seemed to have enjoyed the piece very much, and said to me during the interval, ‘can I buy you a drink’? A friend of mine had already offered and was getting one for me, so I said: ‘there is a queue, I’m afraid, but this is the best compliment I’ve had’!

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

Being a composer in our modern time, where everything seems to be driven by a culture of doing things fast, in order to get rich and famous as soon as possible, is not an easy thing to do! Our work is measured with minutes, and we spend hours and hours to compose a minute of music, but I do it because I can’t do without it! I am still optimistic, for me the glass has always been half-full. My belief is that, when it comes to creativity, one should at least try to speak with one’s voice, however small that might be! I’ve been teaching composition for some 20 years now, and often say to my students: ‘Write the music that you want to hear, not the music that I want to hear, because that one, I can write it myself!’


Multi award–winning composer Thomas Simaku graduated from the Tirana Conservatoire and gained a PhD in Composition from the University of York, where he studied with David Blake. Simaku was the Leonard Bernstein Fellow in Composition at Tanglewood Music Centre, USA studying with Bernard Rands, and a fellow at the Composers’ Workshop, California State University with Brian Ferneyhough. Thomas Simaku’s music has been reaching audiences across Europe, the USA and further afield for more than two decades, and it has been awarded a host of accolades for its expressive qualities and its unique blend of intensity and modernism.

For more information about Thomas Simaku and his music, please follow the links https://www-users.york.ac.uk/~ts8/

https://soundcloud.com/thomassimaku

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, how they are progressing, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I encountered people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt – and limit -my practising. I grew increasingly envious of the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something more positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent